Getting Under the Skin

I once experienced something strange in school. It was as I approached the staff room door in my first few days of a remote school in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. The staff room was a cool respite from the blinding sun bouncing off the red soil of the school yard. I could hear a hubbub of voices inside, the local teachers chattering away in English. The second I opened the door the language clicked into Shona, the home language. Like a switch had been pressed. One minute English, the next minute Shona. Yet I was sure that the teachers knew I hadn’t yet mastered the local language. I remember walking inside and sitting down at a desk to mark books, feeling uncomfortable, unsure what I had done wrong.

The Rhodesian civil war was a recent memory and back in London I’d had some cultural awareness training but after a couple of weeks of being ignored and two years ahead of me I’d had enough, so I decided to talk to one of the teachers I knew best. I asked some questions and did a lot of listening. I came to understand how the behaviour of a volunteer the year before explained why I’d been on the receiving end of this linguistic snub. From then on relationships blossomed, but it was a good life lesson:

Take time to listen to people. There’s always history.

Our society’s track record of listening to those who are ‘different’ is not great. Growing our points of contact instead of surrounding ourselves with people just like us won’t make all of the world’s problems would go away, but some just might.

The two worst performers in vanquishing the virus, the UK and the US, have split communities. Online point-scoring suggests that we are beset with division. Afraid of beliefs we disagree with, we revert to type, to tribe. Neighbourhoods turn nasty. We see the deaths of unarmed African-Americans, we feel the polarised hatred on our social media and we sense that politics in Britain and America is turning in on itself. A humanity which is retreating from the world. A humanity which hates what it doesn’t know, and which tries less and less to understand difference. A humanity which has stopped listening.

“We have talk enough,” Samuel Johnson once said, “but no conversation.” Conversation is where we develop the ability to understand people. Instead, we are increasingly satisfied with one-way sound bites. In her book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle says we “use technology to dial down human contact, to titrate its nature and extent.”

We know how it feels not to be listened to.
There is no eye contact. We are frequently interrupted. The other person is just thinking what they’ll say when we’ve closed our mouth. Or in a group, people just try to assert their position in the hierarchy. The majority of us don’t listen well because real listening is dangerous. I suspect the last time we had a conversation that made us feel deeply connected with someone was when they showed genuine curiosity about our views and who we are. To achieve this, the psychologist Carl Rogers suggests this rule: each person should speak only after they have first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker to their satisfaction. This helps understand the other person, sees the way life appears to them, and gets to the truth more quickly.

The best people listen well.
Where genuine listening is taking place, the speaker has time to process their thoughts and there is true reciprocity on the part of the listeners. Everyone acts as through they have something to learn, instead of trying to dominate. The masks come off. It is not like the bombast of Westminster, more like the atmosphere you see at a lecture, or a book festival, where we accept that we know little about a subject, so we approach with humility, and emerge informed. When we listen well in our organisations, we demonstrate that the silent majority have something to offer, we show that everyone is of equal value and we model to our colleagues the culture we want to cultivate.

Living together makes us listen better.
It’s exciting when different cultures meet and start listening to each other. It is why I lived abroad. To live with people who see the world from a different angle. It begins with skin, then words of greeting, language, customs, and before you know it you are laughing about points of connection. In a true cosmopolitan society, different kinds of people live in the same neighbourhoods, rub shoulders and try to navigate the same problems (Where should we live? Which school for my child?). Never forget that apartheid in South Africa existed by separating races for fear that if people lived together might just recognise their common humanity.

And living together builds powerful ties. The ties that connect people within mixed communities can be as important as the strong ties of family and friendship. Weak ties help us find a job because they widen connections outside our normal circle. They are influential in social change, because they provide our communities with vital information which can change behaviour or trigger protest. If you want to convince a group of people to drink fair-trade coffee, provide housing for homeless people or campaign for civil rights, then most people won’t care enough until it involves or affects someone they know. This becomes the tipping point, it creates obligation, it’s when we feel engaged. Mobilised.

A great example of the power of weak ties is Rosa Parks. In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg shows how she was a community person who knew lots of people just a little. People listened to her, and those weak ties cut across racial divides, those relationships across Montgomery allowed her friends to respond. A kind of positive peer pressure. The Montgomery Bus Boycott became the epicentre of the civil rights, largely because the weak ties of Rosa Parks prompted participation. Mixed communities are oiled by weak ties because people listen more carefully.

The power of education.
Instead of covering the gaps in our understanding with suspicion, we are filling them with eye-opening literature. Reading and talking and listening helps frame our identity, our story. And when we read books from a different tribe we hear from outsiders with a new perspective, which challenges us and helps us poke a stick into the nest of too comfortable opinions that mark the boundaries of our communities. We have just experienced the longest period of online Continual Professional Development, training and reading. Over this period, I’ve learnt new perspectives on race in the pages of The Good Immigrant and Hillbilly and Michelle Obama’s Becoming and I’ve watched seminars that have challenged my thinking again and again. It’s been a time of growth for all of us and it’s important that we share this with our communities.

Coaching the next generation means teaching youngsters how to listen and be open to difference. In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker shows how education has helped people become less racist, less sexist, less misogenistic, and less homophobic than the generation before. We learn that there are better and worse ways to live, and that other cultures may know things that we don’t. This is why education is the flagship of human progress – no surprise that the lowest rates of literacy are found in the most authoritarian and most war-torn countries (Sudan 32%, Afghanistan 38%). The rights of women, minorities and gay people are now not only cherished in law but are also a physical reality. In her book, Michelle Obama said:

“I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves, and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

Aristotle writes about ‘praotes,’ the Greek word which means much more than our similar word ‘mercy.’ It means the ability to get right inside the other person’s skin, so that we see things with their eyes, think things with their mind. This is not pity, or even sympathy, but the deliberate identification with the other person. It means standing in their shoes. The priestess of Delphi described Socrates as the wisest man because he listened, sought the truth while understanding that he knew nothing. Socrates would have got white privilege. Genuine listening is the highest form of thought, it’s great education, it’s the best preparation for proper living. It is the beginning of wisdom.

There is enough fear out there already. Let’s leave fear at the staff-room door and listen.

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