It is often said that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk. I always thought of myself as a good listener, a good communicator, a patient person, someone that is able to handle my emotions well, and that I am rational. I recently had all these tested and learned, once again, that good listening is an ongoing practice.
I'm on a journey to learn more about Kenyan and African history and identity through books, and my reading list so far has included: Histories of the Hanged, the true story about the Mau Mau war; Britain's Gulag, the brutal end of empire in Kenya; Traveling While Black, essays by a female Kenyan author on her life on the move; The Destruction of Black Civilisation, a history of Africans from 4500BC to the current epoch; The African Origin of Civilisation, which argues that ancient Egypt was a black civilisation.
I am in the early stages of this journey, and I have not read them all as I write this. They aren't easy reads, as you can imagine. Each book is hundreds of pages long, intensely analytical, imparting extensive insight and knowledge, but importantly also evoking deep-seated and sometimes unspoken emotions. So, I am moving at a pace that works for me to digest and reflect on what I am reading and what it means for me in the world as it is today.
I believe it is important to be able to have difficult conversations in a respectful, empathetic way. It is definitely not easy, but I believe this is important in allowing us to find common ground, understand each other's perspectives, and move forward together. I write this to you in context to my lesson on listening.
The punch from a polarising conversation
At a social lunch with like-minded people, I raised some issues I was reading about Kenya's history and the injustices that are still going on today from a racial, social and economic perspective. It didn't go down well.
We were a diverse group of people by race, culture, gender, world views, etc., at this lunch. Yes, I left the lunch on good terms but extremely hurt and offended by how the conversations had turned, twisted and morphed. The feeling of not being heard and misunderstood, kept my thoughts racing into a very disturbed and short night of sleep.
The next day, I called a good friend, a white friend, to talk it through; he had also been at the lunch. It was intentional that I called this friend. I felt I needed that different perspective, and yes, I was still upset from the previous day's misunderstandings, the perceived racial undertones, and perspectives raised, including my own.
My friend did something remarkable; he listened. I talked about the books I was reading, the limited information from our history classes in Kenyan schools, the life of my parents, the sense of injustice I felt, the frustration and hurt that stayed on from the lunch conversation. And when I was done, I listened to him.
I listened to the context of his own national history, to the history he was taught in school, to the life experiences of his parents. And I felt something shift in me. I felt the common ground we now had, the shared reality, the understanding of our respective perspectives. We had created the space and taken the time to listen to each other, and all the hurt, frustration and the sense of injustice I was feeling dissolved.
I continued reading my books, but it was different this time; I wasn't angry. I was reading with a different feeling, somehow knowing that to understand my present and to create my future, I needed to understand my past. It wasn't only about the historical facts, the (shocking) injustices and wrongdoing that I was reading about, but also importantly about how knowing and understanding all this can help me move forward with meaning in my life. My reading had a sense of purpose: how can what I am learning about the past help me do my part in creating a world where we care about each other and our shared future? This is when, I think, I truly understood the power of sound and conscious listening and how it can heal – because it healed me.
Like I said, I had always believed that I am a good listener, but this experience showed me that there is so much depth to listening, and I was not practising that kind of listening enough. I realised that I tend to become impatient with listening, hoping for shorter versions of someone's story to save time; unintentionally interrupting to ask questions; listening to fix or solve the issues. I realised that I was not listening enough with my heart and my other senses to understand the other person's perspective. And as a result, I was missing so much; I was missing the connection that comes with listening.
My quest to understand Africa's history and identity actually began with listening. Good and conscious listening to my aunt talking at a family gathering about her earlier life. It is said that we listen differently when we are listening to people we care about – we listen better (most times). But to those we don't know that well or aren't close to us, we are impatient, brief, judgmental with our listening. This isn't good and conscious listening. It's listening to get to the point, find the opportunity to jump in, give our view, or provide a solution to the issue. It's more about us than it is about the person you are listening to. Which then suggests that we aren't listening at all but waiting for the opportunity to talk about ourselves and give our opinions.
What does good and conscious listening involve?
Life seems to have become louder, noisier, and more crowded with all kinds of information crying for our attention. We are also at a time in our communities, our country, our world where separate-ness, miscommunication/misinformation, disconnect are thriving. Yet, all we long for, I believe, is a sense of connection.
In Kenya, I believe we are also at a time where good and conscious listening will be essential – our road to the national elections in 2022. Where listening to other people's perspectives in the hope of creating understanding, empathy, common ground, a shared reality; will be important to our lives, our neighbourhoods, our communities, our country. Kenyans know how divisive our elections can be. We also have the recent American elections as a reminder of how misunderstanding, the position of "us versus them", and how failing to listen makes coming back together so much harder. These may not be easy or straightforward times we live in, but they are our times; so, we must strive to do what we can to make them better.
In her article – Did You Hear Me? Did You See Me? Did I Say Anything That Mattered? –Damaris Agweyu highlights that 'Listening doesn't necessarily mean that we agree with the other person. Neither does it mean that we are looking to defend our positions or address the "content" of what they are saying in the moment. It does mean that we are hearing someone, validating their experience(s), and affirming to them that what they're saying matters.'
In my decision to practice good and conscious listening, here are some pointers I will be putting into practice. I share them here in the hope that they may be helpful to you, reading this, too:
- Listen with curiosity and openness; listen with respect; listen with your heart, not only with your brain/mind; take time to think about and reflect on what you have heard.
- Receive what you are hearing; appreciate what you are receiving as you listen; summarise it to see whether you have understood, and ask questions. (Please do note that the asking questions pointer is the last step!).
- Use your discernment (your ability to judge well) on whether this is the time, place, audience to have certain conversations – especially difficult conversations. The context: time, place, people – influences how you listen; and whether you will be listened to.
- Listen more and talk less; make it a dialogue, not a monologue.
Following my experiences from the lunch, I am fully committed to being a good and conscious listener.
The other day, I met up with a friend for a long-overdue catch-up. When I got home later that day, I realised that I had done most of the talking. I didn't do well on my first effort to improve my listening. I am, however, glad that I had this realisation. And I am very, very glad that life will continue to present me with the opportunities to test my ability to listen and get better at it. It will take lots of practice; I believe that is why it's sometimes called the Art of Listening.
Ted Talk on How to Disagree Productively and Find Common Ground (15mins)
Ted Talk on 5 Ways to Listen Better (7mins)