About every two years, something (usually a video game, but sometimes a TV show or book) gets under my skin and I write some fan fiction. This time, it’s Gone Home. If you’ve played the game, check it out!
One of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is real listening. He wrote about how we tend, when ostensibly listening, to go into a probing, analytical mode. We hear the person’s problems, and immediately set to pondering and advising on how we’d solve them. We hear their feelings, and get to thinking and describing how we went through something similar once. We hear their stories, and spin them around to our own autobiographies.
That’s all bullshit. Someone’s opening themselves up, trying to communicate something of themselves, and we at every turn make it about us. We get a chance to absorb and appreciate and empathize with another human being’s experiences, and instead we superimpose our own on them and blot them out.
To truly listen, put those impulses on hold. Don’t spin the conversation toward your own story. Don’t argue with or problem-solve their feelings. Affirm what they’re saying, echo back the emotions you perceive (“I bet that make you frustrated as hell!”), and only volunteer solutions, probe for reasons, or dissect arguments if they ask or invite you to. Seek first to understand, then to be understood, as Covey put it.
The same phenomenon occurs, writ large, in wider conversations about privilege. Some horrific event like the Santa Barbara shootings occurs; a celebrity like Mike Krahulik spews hate; a vlogger like Anita Sarkeesian points out the sexist or racist themes in video games. The people hurt by these things speak up, and their privileged counterparts go into autobiography and analysis mode. They reject the feelings expressed because it’s not a problem for them, mansplain/whitesplan/cissplain why it’s not so bad as all that, etc. In short, they don’t stop and listen.
One of the hallmarks of privilege is the from-birth messaging and conditioning that your opinion matters, that it is your right to be heard, that it is your civic or God-given duty to voice your disagreements. But when it comes to experiences not your own, to the emotions and objections of people different from you, put that shit away. It is not your story, not your turn to speak, and your whinges of “not all men or like that” or “go fight some real racism” are not, in fact, worth crap. The people you want so badly to dispute with have not offered up pennies for your thoughts, because now is not the time to voice them.
When someone who does not share in your privilege speaks their mind, shares their pain, points out the problems inherent in the system, your imperative is this and this alone:
shut the fuck up