Allies – Job #1 = Listening

Allies – Job #1 = Listening

Written by David Rowell

Not long ago, I was having a drink with an acquaintance of mine. Well actually let me step back as it’s important to stop and point out that this person was truly much more an acquaintance than a close friend. Our relationship was largely based on he being a colleague of a family member of mine, and someone I spoke to pretty rarely. Still, on one of those rare occasions where we happened to be sharing a happy hour drink, he told me, in very much out of the blue fashion, that he was gay. This person was 63 years old at that point in time and married. And I was only the third person he had told, having just very recently come out. The first was his wife, just a few weeks earlier, and likewise, the second was one of his children. So why me? He did know that my work included LGBTQ+, but at the same time, we had no history of which to fully determine I was a confidant. What he was able to discern in our few prior meetings, however, was that I was a good listener – an empathetic listener; something he very much needed at the time.

Though we were not close, he did see me as an ally. And it can be said that empathetic listening is the most important work an ally can do. And on that point note that I call it work. It’s not that listening is not rewarding, enjoyable, or bilaterally serving, but it is not always easy. Empathetic listening often takes conscious effort.

To back up a bit, we need to recognize that listening is a skill, a skill that will connect to others. Most of us are aware of this, but with career interests and such, we come to think of listening much more as a tool to gain information. Among other things, listening is a necessity to acquire essential information that helps us do assigned tasks, keep in the loop, to help fit in, etc…. Yet, the more important facet of listening is that of relationship builder and/or strengthener. Listening is powerful in this. Listening shows respect, engenders trust, and connects people emotionally and intellectually.

In case you doubt the power of listening, I ask, “Who are the great listeners you know or have known?” I bet you can name them quickly regardless of how near or far they are or whether recent or past.

One of the most personally touching stories about listening that was ever told to me came from my cousin Barb. Barb and I grew up together and have kept in touch throughout our lives. In my late forties at a time of reconnection with Barb, I told her she had always been a hero of mine, or rather the hero of mine, because of the great amount of laudable work she has done in her life. Much of her work was as a volunteer, and all of it was done in service to others. When I told her she was my hero, she countered that it was the other way around. Since adolescence, I had always been her hero. And the reason was that I listened. I am several years older than Barb, but we were close even when I was a teen and she a pre-teen. She recalls perfectly the two of us talking during long walks together during a time in her life that was difficult for her. I recall these times together, but I was a teenage boy oblivious to her angst. Yet the teenage boy took the time to listen to his younger female cousin. That simple act was so important to Barb that she can recall clearly how it made her feel after all these years, and how helpful it was for her for no reason other than a caring, friendly ear. My listening touched her, and her story touches me deeply. Her story is invaluable not only as a lesson in connection, but it is also a testament to the durable and strengthening power of listening.

As it comes to allies of LGBTQ+, listening is especially important. This because not all allies fully understand the very real and deep issues LGBTQ+ persons face and experience. Allies may or may not have experienced similar things themselves, and more often it is – may not. Only through listening can they understand. And understanding is prerequisite to empathy.

Allies, please note this – one other thing I learned about listening throughout my years (the number of which I won’t confess here) … is don’t pretend to listen. People eventually see through any subterfuge regardless of how well (you believe) you mask it. In not being forthright, you will either be seen as someone not to be trusted with confidences or someone who is only placating. In either case, you will be seen as someone not to fully connect with, and not a true ally.

Real listening, or active listening, is hard. Active listening has two basic forms: 1) empathetic and 2) give-and-take. Empathetic listening is solely about the other person and what she or he has to say. This listening, sometimes called receptive or active listening, requires movement of position and/or perspective. And it is the type of listening most difficult for some to master. With give-and-take listening, a person legitimately listens with their own interests equal to what the speaker is saying. It is basically taking turns – turning on and off selfish listening with empathetic listening.

There is nothing inherently wrong with give-and-take listening. It’s actually more common than empathetic listening. But empathetic, or receptive, listening is the path to trusted connection.

To achieve receptive listening:

  1. Listen.Keep your mind quiet and process the words being said in a focused manner.
  2. Repeat the speaker’s words. This is a simple form of reflecting and involves repeating almost exactly what the speaker says. Repeating what the speaker says shows you’re paying attention, at a minimum. More importantly, it ensures you did indeed hear all that was said.
  3. Rephrase. At this stage, you rephrase what was said in your own words. This ensures you understand what was said and reveals any misunderstanding. Paraphrasing involves using different words to reflect what the speaker has said. It demonstrates not only that you are listening but that you are attempting to understand. 
  4. Reflect on what was said. Here, we focus on the feeling(s) behind the words and not just on what is being said. You reflect what you sense. This helps get to the real (personal) import of the words that were said. This can be seen as listening with your heart.

It is difficult to resist the temptation to ask questions when you first use this technique. And it is difficult to remain completely focused and not think about your own thoughts, perspectives and experiences.

Although the rephrasing step may seem stilted and awkward, it is vital to the process. When you both rephrase content and reflect feeling, others will sense your desire to really listen and understand. It also demonstrates that full and correct information was shared and that you understand it from the perspective of the speaker. It also shows you care.

Another thing to pay heed to is that all this deliberate listening must, repeat – must, be done without judgment. Judgment inhibits complete understanding and negates real empathy. Our LGBTQ+ family members, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances get enough of undeserved judgment from others, they certainly don’t need any bit from (so-called) allies. True allies listen with no judgment – period.

If you are a good listener, you will become known as such. People will seek you out as a supportive ally, and in return you gain real, personally rewarding relationships with truly wonderful people. As I have with my family member’s colleague. And this holds true whether persons are LGBTQ+, cis, hetero … anyone and everyone wants, and often needs, good listeners, and appreciates such. Even one’s cousin.

1 Comment
  • Margie Morris
    Posted at 22:11h, 25 July Reply

    Great advice and actionable steps! Trained youth mentors on this approach for years, having benefitted from the insightful work on mentor attunement from Dr Julia Pryce at Loyola University. Broad applications and a skill we all should build!!

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