If you were raised in a large family, like I was, listening is not a skill you walk away with.
Funny how life and work switch things up. Having just started a business, I find I’m doing a lot more listening these days. I’m listening to new ideas, new messages, new clients - along with the ongoing background babble of the dog’s needs and the chickens’ complaints. I’m working from home for the first time ever.
I’m also listening to the news. During the day. The radio is my constant companion as I navigate this new way of working as a sole proprietor.
Right now, the #metoo movement and reports about sexual harassment are in surround sound. It’s on the radio, in my social media feed and in my morning email news subscriptions. It’s loud. Opinions, posts, accusations are popping up everywhere. And yet, unlike other trends and news, it is difficult to know where to start a conversation about this serious subject.
Frankly, it’s easier to avoid the subject altogether. It’s icy terrain. Right now, it trumps politics and religion on the scale of most awkward conversations.
Last week I listened to a story on WBUR’s Here & Now radio show discussing the #metoo movement. With no one else to discuss it with, I listened, really listened. One simple suggestion and one that I took to heart was, if you are part of a discussion and someone starts dominating the conversation, speak up. If you see that someone has not had a chance to speak, ask them a question. And if you yourself have been interrupted, say something. The discussion suggested that while it can be easy to chalk up that interruption to obliviousness, the act of interrupting may be the red flag signalling an imbalance of power between two people and that paying attention to this one thing could prevent harassment.
Easy to do, right? Not so. We all have been in situations where someone starts to talk and someone else interrupts and then someone else comments on what the interrupter said and then the conversation is two or three people removed from the original speaker. Sometimes the interrupter is the person in charge, sometimes it’s a play for power in the group - but not always.
A recent event gave me a glimpse of what this is all about. On one of Maine’s iciest nights, outfitted with spikes on our muck boots, a small group of us scraped our way in downtown Portland to share our opinions about a non-profit organization we all cared about. Introductions were made and then our intrepid group formed a circle and became a temporary assembly.
On this night that felt like the end of the world (so dark, so cold), a young woman started to answer a question and offer a suggestion when someone interrupted her. I started to comment on the interrupter’s comments when the young woman interrupted me and said,
"Excuse me, I'd like to finish what I was saying."
In that moment, her simple request to be heard radicalized my desire to listen. In that moment, I got a humbling reminder of what I could do to change the conversation and advance the cause - no matter whether the discussion was about consent or non-profit organizations or why I have chickens, I needed to remember to pay attention. I needed to remember to speak up. In that moment, I was reminded of how the act of listening requires commitment, practice and vigilance. Even when you think you’re paying attention.