Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Why It’s Time to Listen

Over the past two weeks, many of the peaceful protests regarding the horrifying death of George Floyd have grown violent. I am not an expert in racial injustice. When it comes to the issues facing our country right now, I’m a student, not a teacher. I’m reading and watching and listening and learning. And, like many of you, I’m trying to make sense of what is happening.

In Crucial Conversations, we teach that when people leave a shared pool of meaning, they leave because they feel unsafe in the shared pool. And when they leave, they go to either silence (shutting own, withdrawing, etc.) or violence (becoming controlling, angry or intimidating, etc.). Violence then is a set of strategies to compel or coerce people toward our own point of view. Violence, then, can also be viewed as an attempt to be heard.

People don’t always leave that pool of meaning on their own. Sometimes, they are kept out of it purposely and systematically. Human beings have an innate and powerful need to be heard. And when our voices are denied a chance to be heard, we go to silence or to violence.

I don’t know how we will find our way through this as a global community, but I do know that when it comes to conversations, finding our way back from silence or violence is about listening.

Here are three things we can all do today to become better listeners.

1. Check your own story. It’s hard to listen when you have already made up your mind. Our minds are built to make sense of the facts before us. We do that by telling ourselves a story about what those facts mean. But too often, we weave that story based on a limited, narrow, incomplete set of facts. And then we hold onto our story (our perceptions, our judgements, our conclusions) as truth. When presented with additional information that does not fit our narrative, we reject it as fake or wrong. We seek only that information which confirms our original story.

To listen, we have to let go of our own certainty. We acknowledge our story for what it is—our story. Acknowledging our story as a story creates the space for others’ stories. Of course, you will have a different story than I do, because your data stream and your lived experience is different than mine.

2. Identify the limitations of your data stream. We are all in some measure a product of our own data stream. And much of that data stream that has been constructed for us. What we see in social and traditional media is often carefully designed with one goal in mind: to keep us consuming that media. What we like, we see more of until we are living in a virtual echo chamber. As we search for information and truth, often what feels like discovery is in fact by design.

But it is not just media that informs our data stream. It is our lived experience as well. Our neighborhoods, our schools, our coworkers, our environment—all are a part of our data stream.

As a white woman living in a pre-dominantly white community, my data stream is severely limited. It is incumbent upon me to acknowledge the limitations of that data stream and actively make choices to broaden it. I can and do choose media to consume that helps expand rather than constrict my data stream. Choose today to seek out and befriend someone who thinks differently than you, who has a different lived experience, whether in person or on social media. That is just one way we can broaden our data stream.

3. Listen for truth. Too often, when we disagree with someone, we listen carefully to them with a single intent: to find the flaw in their argument so we can point it out. We listen with an intent to disprove them.

Instead, try listening to others with this objective: I will find something in what you are saying that is true. Yes, 99% of what you say, I may disagree with. Strongly. But can I find something that I think is true?

Our fear and self-protective instincts drive us to a place of absolutes. People are righteous or evil. All good or all bad. Yet that’s not true. People are complex. Yes, we can have strong moral convictions of what is right and wrong. But we need to balance that with empathy and understanding.

People will be heard.

I am writing this from a place of privilege. I know that. Listening will not bring back George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor, or countless others. But change can and will happen when more voices are heard. When more people are part of the conversation. When the pool of meaning expands. Those voices, powerful and weak, will find a way to be heard. Let’s make it easier by listening.

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16 thoughts on “Why It’s Time to Listen”

  1. Marilyn Momeny

    Your article about listening was good and I applaud your courage to tackle a difficult topic in the midst of a highl-charged atmosphere. To claim you are writing from a place of “privilege” is buying into a false narrative and signaling to violent protestors that you are not equal to them. You worked for what you have and where you are. And there are thousands of others of all races who have done the same. Instead of kowtowing and repeating propaganda, hold up examples of people who took responsibility for themselves and achieved greatness. You don’t have to look far to find examples from all ethnic backgrounds! And do not reward those who claim violence is a valid way to express themselves. Trying to have a conversation with a child who is throwing a tantrum and destroying property is not going to result in any meaningful improvement….it simply rewards acting out. You have to stop the child from hurting others and wait until she is rational again. Kneeling to violent looters and those who support them is counter productive.

    1. Atticus Rotoli

      Ironically Marilyn, I do not think you have considered the three points that Emily raises and reading your comment makes that clear. It is indeed a privilege to live a life without facing systemic racism on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, lifetime basis. To downplay that privilege as a false narrative generated by violent protestors only shows just how far apart our stories and experiences really are and how critical it is to follow the guidance that Emily discusses. Further, this idea you suggest that we would yield to violent protestors is completely asinine in my opinion and I find it rather bold to make that claim as well as to downplay what’s really happening by demeaning people as children throwing tantrums. The very point here is to listen and have those tough conversations and not to turn our backs on those who need help and are struggling. Your idea that we should wait until one is rational only reads as another form of suppression to me and feeds into the very problem that’s occurring today.

      1. Marilyn Momeny

        Atticus, Thanks for your response. You may be right that comparing rioters to children is unfair. And I recognize that many protestors were peaceful and I applaud and support everyone’s right to peaceful protest. I am up for tough conversations. My point, which I may not have made well, is that for Emily to say she is “privileged” bec of the color of her skin is fallacious. And it supports a political narrative that those with white skin must now bow down and apologize for their skin color. It is the flip side of the racism coin. I am with MLK that we should judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. I believe our goal should be equal opportunity for all and support for everyone to take accountability for becoming whoever they want to be.

        1. Atticus Rotoli

          Marilyn, I couldn’t disagree more and words cannot properly express the deep frustration and disappointment I feel when I hear you suggest that the notion of white privilege is a fallacy that supports a political narrative. I do not understand how you could quote Dr. King in agreement with the objective for equality while at the same time discrediting one of the key problems preventing that dream for equal rights from being realized. I again implore you take another look at Emily’s article and consider the three points she makes with special attention to her second point about expanding one’s data stream. Marilyn, I do not know if you will be willing to take the next step and follow through with the recommendations of this article, and so for those other folks who are reading this and may be wondering where to start and how to do this, I personally recommend setting up an Instagram account and then following these people to start: @victoriaalxndr, who just shared a very topical article by Peggy McIntosh titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”; @thegreatunlearn hosted by @rachel.cargle; @jessicawilson.msrd; @theconsciouskid; @privtoprog; @mspackyetti. Marilyn, if you are willing to expand the boundaries of your data stream, then these people and sites might be a good place to begin and if I had to pick just one site to start with, I would start with @thegreatunlearn. I wish you the best of luck on your journey and hope that you will take a moment and commit some time to explore and listen before prepping a quick rebuttal.

          1. Marilyn Momeny

            Atticus Rotoli, I read constantly and will definitely read and follow the people suggested and read the suggested article.

          2. Atticus Rotoli

            I find that I have much more learning and reading to do as well. Thank you Marilyn for listening 🙂

    2. Alan Jasper

      To Marilyn Momeny, I have five children of different races, and agree with your idea of waiting out a tantrum, and glad you enjoyed the article, as did I. One thing you might want to research is “white privilege”, which is not just propaganda but very real, as our family has seen from personal experience. However hard one works, one is either given a “leg up” or handicaps due to skin color, from parents who can read, to teachers, employers, shopkeepers, and the like with pre-conceived notions. Good Luck!

      1. Marilyn Momeny

        Alan, we all have pre-conceived notions. I am sure you have interesting stories based on your famiky make-up. My favorite personal story is that the Corp (Fortune 500) that I worked for provided diversity training by the Corp VP of Diversity, an African American corp officer. The gentleman had grown up in Beverly Hills, CA and spoke openly in the training about his youth (obviously his family was quite well to do). After the training, one of my female employees (white) who grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx in a terrible situation, came to me incensed. She was offended that he was lecturing her how to behave when, he was a corp officer and by his own admission, had enjoyed a pretty easy life. She was angry bec she thought she deserved much more credit for what she had overcome and had grown up with much less “privilege” that tge corp officer. it is difficult to go from individual situations to overall policy. I am confident that with respectful conversation, we can continually improve our great country.

    3. Bonnie

      I agree that taking responsibility for yourself is definitely a component to achieving greatness. But there are many other facets, some of which are not experienced the same for all. As a very young child in the mid 70s, I stole a puzzle book from a grocery store while shopping with my mom. I was caught by a store employee and the store did not take any further action. My parents ensured they drilled home how wrong my actions were and I never made an error in judgement like that again. Would my life have gone down a very different path if the store had dealt with the incident differently? Would my parents and family been treated differently as a result of a 6 yr old making a poor choice? Absolutely, you can find examples of people from all ethnic backgrounds that have achieved greatness. That doesn’t mean they didn’t need to overcome more and put up with more to get there. And that’s the issue that needs to be addressed.

      1. Marilyn Momeny

        I agree that we all have to overcome things in life. However, how do you propose to address that? Was life more difficult for an African American than for someone born with a mental or physical handicap? How are you going to measure the degree of difficulty and who was more “privileged”? i think that the best we can do is provide equal opportunity for all and encourage people to take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.

        1. Marjorie

          I’ve been doing a lot of reading and learning. Allow me to share a few things I’ve learned that might help.
          Privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t had challenges and difficulties in life. It means that the color of your skin (or gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc) didn’t create those problems. Rather than looking at it as a hierarchy (“is this person’s life more difficult than that person”) it’s helpful to see it as a complex situation. We have target identities (privilege) and agent identities (disenfranchisement). For example, a white gay man would experience privilege for being white and male but disenfranchisement for being gay. A Black lesbian would encounter disenfranchisement based on her skin color, gender, and sexual preference. This is intersectionality–where multiple things are effectively working against someone.
          Rather than focusing on equal opportunity, we should focus on equity. Let’s say you have a stairs to enter a building. Any abled person can walk in but someone in a wheelchair could not. That’s not equitable. We see racial inequity show up in places like housing and health. A POC has a shorter life expectancy than a white person. The color of someone’s skin shouldn’t impact their health but it does because of long term inequities.
          Hope that helps in your understanding.

    4. Lisa W

      This is a very clearly expressed opinion. I agree with it.

  2. lbj

    Excellently written. Shared with my nearly adult children who are struggling with the conflict, as I would want them to take all three of these important messages to heart.

  3. Benjamin Ram

    Thanks for writing this – I thought it was well framed and balanced.

    I would be interested in something written in more detail about your concept of the Data Stream.

    This is of critical importance and often overlooked. We only know about things that catch our attention and with a well filtered stream, we automatically start with a limited view of the world.

    Two things that I think would be very interesting in a deeper dive on the Data stream is how we end up in that stream to begin with – what choices drive what media we get impacted by and what people we have a chance to meet (you started on this in the article), and the second item for such a write up would be to examine how happenstance (random meeting of someone in line, seeing something interesting on a billboard or poster) impacts our chances at widening our data stream and how the lock down around Covid are greatly limiting our chance to view and learn more and how we need to work harder to get out of our personal bubble.

    Thanks again for the well written article.

  4. Estela Goldstein

    Emily, love this article! Straight to the point! What you say about the listening attitude it is not only applicable in this trying moment but in all situations where a conflict might arise.Thank you so much!

  5. Scott Jackson

    Thank you Emily for your helpful ideas, which I see as valuable Emotional Intelligence Skills.
    Will VitalSmarts ever offer a course in Cognitive Intelligence Skills?
    I understand it would probably have to be a “survey” course because Cognitive Intelligence Skills are a vast subject matter that we’re supposed to be already getting in K-12 through university education. However, it’s painfully obvious that’s not happening in the United States today.
    A good place to start would be Dr Kevin DeLaplante’s 5 pillars of critical thinking including: Formal Logic (deductive reasoning), Informal Logic (argumentation), Rhetoric (persuasive speech), Psychology (biases) and the most important part of rational conversations: Background Knowledge.
    VitalSmarts could call this course “Rational Conversations.” Because without these 5 pillars, it’s extremely difficult to be a rational human being. I’m not an expert in these 5 pillars, but just the knowledge of their existence makes me more humble, and much more skeptical of those who claim to have the answers, without them providing the verifiable evidence and describing the valid/strong logic that links the evidence to their claims.

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