A Poverty of Listening

I am energized by good conversation. It is often how I make sense of the world. Solvitur sermondo: It is solved by talking. (A dismal adaptation of Solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking. I apologize in advance to anyone who actually knows Latin.) I have good intentions when I speak my mind. I am curious and interested in different perspectives. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I contribute to a poverty of listening.

One lesson from my time studying in India has stuck with me: listening well can require more energy than speaking. My group was working with a local non-profit that worked on rural development projects in agriculture, environmental sustainability, finance, and gender equality. A few weeks into our collaboration with them, they initiated outreach with another village in the area to explore the potential of a new partnership. The foundation invited us to take part in an exercise called a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA).

A PRA is a tool rooted in a fresh-take on developmental philosophy: an organization brings together a representative sample of a community in order to get a sense of the community’s conception of its own needs. For the PRA I attended, women, men, children, farmers, businesspeople, students, and elders all gathered to share how they perceive their own space. Farmers explored the village’s history of crops; women described their average day of work; a hodgepodge of community members drew a map of their resources and problems. It’s a way of figuring out what the community truly needs and wants by flipping the script: they are the experts on what work should be done, not the people coming into the community. It is tough to embrace that role reversal and many times during the PRA I struggled with the format. The more we go to school and the more “educated” we become, the more we assume that it is us that knows everything. Granting that there are cases where substantive expertise is essential to good outcomes, one doesn’t have to look far to see the failures of supposed “experts”.

What’s the converse of this hubris? To listen, really listen. To give our attention to the act of listening is to unlock immense potential. Sincere listening encourages the essentials of good decision-making and growth: collaboration, innovation, and flexibility. It makes us better coequal partners in the greatest project of all, humanity. Through the act of listening, we are chiseled by others’ voices and made into better human beings. I witnessed the simple power of committed listening during the PRA as the community began to tell their own story: where they’d been, where they were, and where they wanted to go. Afterwards, I was given the best compliment I have ever received: one of the leaders of the exercise told the gathered community members that when we had broken into small groups for discussion, he didn’t need to translate as much for me because we had “listened with our hearts”.

What would happen if we were rich in listening with our hearts?

How would our interactions with the Social Web change if instead of seeing blog posts, Facebook updates, and tweets as objects of consumption we saw them as opportunities to connect, learn, and listen?

What would our relationships with our friends, family, and partners look like if we were to give all of our attention to the lost art of listening instead of constantly formulating our next comment or response?

In my future career in law, what would it look like if lawyers, necessary for translating the complexities of the legal system, were to commit to listening to their clients and community’s needs?

What would our politics look like if, instead of getting on the hamster wheel of cheap points and news cycles, our elected officials were willing to listen to their constituents and their opponents?

If we had really listened to the stories from people of color indicting our society with systemic racism, would these damning statistics continue to be true?

I have a hunch that, just as addressing economic poverty unlocks a number of problems, the world would be radically different if we were to take seriously the poverty of listening. How can we all take part in its alleviation? Let’s work towards a world rich in this forgotten skill.

What do you think? I’m listening.