Lessons in Listening
When I was in college, I regularly had informal discussions with my friends on topics that ranged from silly to serious, hypothetical to real. We would go back and forth, expressing our opinions and challenging what we thought were the merits of the other person's arguments. These discussions were intriguing and stimulating. They were also sometimes tense and confrontational, especially if we ever broached sensitive political or social topics. In these moments I sometimes stayed silent, choosing to keep the peace rather than contribute an opinion that others might find unacceptable. As a result, these discussions sometimes seemed deficient, obstructed by a lack of proper communication and openness.
As time went on, I started to recognize patterns. It seemed that everyone wanted to be heard at the same time, everyone wanted to be understood. But no one was ready to listen. While we were never intentionally disrespectful or malicious, we did often put our need to be heard over our obligation to listen to each other. To try and understand why listening and communication were so difficult, I examined my own behavior first to determine how I was contributing to the lack of understanding.
I realized that I was not taking the time to truly listen to my friends. I too often placed more value on my opinion than on theirs. Instead of listening to what they had to add to the discussion, I would spend time formulating my rebuttals. I also let my preconceived notions about their stances on other topics influence how I interpreted their contributions to different debates. I knew I was not alone in doing so. We were all guilty of choosing to speak rather than to listen.
It wasn’t until I started law school that I began to truly grasp the concept and power of listening. People had always said law school would change the way I think but I hadn’t realized it would change the way I listen too. Suddenly I was forced by professors to switch sides mid-argument. I spent classes finding logical reasons for all kinds of different positions, from the most rational stances to the most ridiculous. As a result, I began seeing logical arguments in everything. I would go back and forth in my head as I read news stories, coming up with rational arguments for the behavior of all the parties involved. I discovered that two people could differ on a topic and both be right. I learned how to listen with intention, noting and responding to a speaker’s specific points, rather than to my ambiguous and ill-formed interpretations of what the person had said. Suddenly I could approach heated discussions with respect, objectivity, and a calm demeanor. Listening changed my entire thought process, a change I didn’t anticipate but wholly welcomed.
I like to think I’ve improved somewhat as a debater since the days of my late-night discussions in college. I try to take time with my answers and make sure I’m being as clear as possible, and I do my best to avoid making assumptions about what the other person means or will say based on their appearance, background, or other opinions.
The difference has been remarkable. Suddenly, my fiercest opponents don’t seem so foreign. I find that I agree more with people on specific points if not the overall picture. While listening is and always will be a learning process for me, it has changed my perspective for the better. That is why I felt compelled to join Listen First Project and why I wanted to write for the “Listen First Project Essay Series.” I am thrilled that this essay series will provide opportunities for other people from diverse backgrounds to share their experiences with listening as well.
Thank you for joining us on this journey, and I hope you enjoy the series as much as we will. Happy listening!
Kemi Adegoroye, LFP VP of Strategic Initiatives & CEO of 13 Roses Productions