Listening as a Radical Response to Scary Times

These are scary and uncertain times. What will emerge? We don’t know yet.  

We are in the midst of a pandemic, waiting for an effective treatment and vaccine (or herd immunity). In the United States, the unemployment rate is more than 20% and is approaching the height of the Great Depression. More than 100,000 people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 have died. 

In the past week, in response to police brutality and the death of innocent people of color — and against the backdrop of three times as many black people dying from COVID as white people — there have been riots and violent clashes between police and demonstrators across the country. 

For context, I recommend this video by Noah Trevor. Protests in solidarity are now taking place in other parts of the world — continued brutality in the U.S. is also hitting a nerve internationally.  

A Confluence of Crises

People were already anxious about COVID, the impact of re-opening public spaces, and the economy; in the U.S., many of us are also unsettled about the state of our democracy, cultural/political divides, and what may happen with the presidential election this Fall. Now in addition, we are facing head on the continued impact of racism, white supremacy, and police brutality (and militarization) in our country. 

It is hard living with this much fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. And when people are afraid, their words and behavior can often come across to others as aggressive and even violent. Marshall Rosenberg, who developed Nonviolent Communication (NVC), made an astute connection between anger and fear. Anger is the “big” emotion (as I like to put it, the first and largest Russian doll). 

Yet underneath anger and rage are other emotions (those smaller Russian dolls)—usually sadness (and even hopelessness) and fear. 

How do we sit with our fear—and acknowledge it and “befriend” it? How do we manage our anxiety, when so much is happening at once, and when so much is scary and unnerving? More specifically: How do we step into a place of tenderness—for ourselves, and others? How do we be our “best” selves during these scary times?

I think we all hope that something constructive and even beautiful will come out of all this pain, injustice, death, and suffering. What a gift and celebration that would be— for all this suffering to have meaning!

What will emerge?

We don’t know yet. 

And what can we do, meanwhile

Listening

I too am anxious, heavy hearted, and troubled. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know how things will turn out. But I trust–based on thousands of hours of experience, in one thing I do know and that has become a rock for me: the act of listening—to myself and others. 

Listening is not the only thing I can do. But it’s one thing I can do. And as someone who’s white, especially as a white person living in the U.S., I think it’s an especially important time to listen—with curiosity, with empathy, free of judgment, and acceptance. This means not taking anything you hear personally. Because it’s not about you. It’s about a system—an impact and a history (that keeps repeating)—that’s larger than any of us.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America. I can only begin to imagine—and how disturbing and terrifying it must be to see another person who looks (something) like me killed again–in broad daylight, while being videotaped, and protected by other police. Again! How do you go through each day—and do your best to focus on the things you need to do (like work, taking care of your children, or even the dishes) knowing this horror-able information, having this video replay in your mind?

How do you live with it each day? How do you possibly feel safe? I have no idea. It would seem to me each day to be a mountain to climb. And if you are the parent of children of color, how do you live with this fear for your children’s safety—and their sense of well being and belonging in society?

What We Can Do

There are many things we can do. And the first, most primary and immediate thing we can do right now, in my opinion, is to listen

For those who have learned Nonviolent Communication, we know how to listen. We can recap (letting the other person know what we’re hearing and that we’re getting them on a content level). We can guess their feelings and needs. We can check with the other person: “Have I heard you accurately? Is there any more you want to tell me?”

We can listen silently with intention, practicing silent empathy. We can set our intentions. We can be present. This kind of listening can be a surprisingly powerful gift for others. In my opinion, people of color have so long and so often not been heard about their experiences, that there is now a listening and empathy deficit. Listening now and listening with openness, care, and positive intent is one thing I can do, today. It’s not the only thing I can do. And it’s a powerful and important thing to do.

I personally hope that one day in the U.S. that we will engage in a national project of listening—a restorative justice process (similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa) so we can listen on a national level, make amends, find justice, and peace. I personally doubt that until we take responsibility as a nation and as a society for what’s happened—and what is still happening today—that we will be liberated from our history and come to our full power and promise and potential as a nation.  

The key elements of restorative justice are giving those who have been impacted a chance to be fully heard and then exploring what will prevent this harm from occurring again. When we have experienced trauma, these are crucial elements for healing: to be heard and to have confidence that moving forward things will be different.  

I hope to see that in my lifetime. 

Meanwhile, today, I can listen. I can manage my own reactions, my own fears, my own desires for understanding (doing the job of holding understanding for myself) and make a conscious choice to listen. Listening in itself I believe can be (in these circumstances) a “political” act. It’s also a profoundly human thing to do. What is more human than to be present to another human being? To honor this sacred connection—and be a witness to each other? To offer understanding and support to someone who has suffered—and is still being impacted by injustice today? 

Listening does not change what’s happened. But it can help people to feel less alone, to find new hope, and new internal resources, and sufficient trust (that’s where the restoration comes in) to explore what our new future together might look like—in a way that works for all of us. 

I look forward to that day happening…


Fania Davis, founding director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), believes that the time has come for a truth-telling process about racial injustice in the United States. Check out an interview with her, “Is the United States Ready for a Truth-Telling Process?

2 thoughts on “Listening as a Radical Response to Scary Times

  1. Pingback: Empathy: The Power House | Work Collaboratively

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