Bracing for Impact: Listening in Hard Times

“Hard to love, when you’re bracing yourself for impact.”

My colleague and fellow comrade-in-arms Jake Dunagan reminded me of this quotation recently when I was interviewing him for my research project on listening. The quotation is from Martin Amis’ London Fields, a 1989 nihilist comedic murder “mystery” set against a backdrop of political, social, and environmental collapse. (Interesting to note that this world-gone-to-wreckage tale takes place in 1999. I miss 1999.)

It is, indeed, hard to love when I am bracing myself, every day, for impact. These days feel dangerous. It’s hard to listen, too. Lately, I find it difficult to listen to anything or anybody that causes me fear, anger, or discomfort. There’s a lot of that going around — fear, anger, and discomfort. I am holding those feelings myself, and I sense them in others. I imagine myself holding the hand of a child I’ll never have in this lifetime. They** are tugging on my arm, imploring me to listen to them. I’m not sure what the request is. They have to pee? They want ice cream? They want to go somewhere? It doesn’t really matter. They are insistent, and they want my attention. We are crossing the street, as we have often done. I have misjudged the enormous truck that is barreling down the street toward us. It’s bearing down on us more quickly than I thought. I want to scoop up my child and run to safety. My child resists, stops in their tracks, and yells with impatience and indignation, “I’m trying to tell you something!” I am trying not to lose it. I want to yell back, “Shut up and come on!!!” Now is not the time for listening. I can choose annihilation…or I can choose breaking the heart of someone I love.

It’s an easy choice, right? Pick up the child, rush to safety, and apologize for losing your temper. At least we are both still alive. That’s the important thing. We are alive, despite the close call. We have lost something, though. My child will remember the time when I was angry at them in the name of “safety” and “life.” They will lose a little bit of trust in me, even though I will know that my refusal to listen was for a good reason. I will say my sorries and explain myself, hoping to be forgiven.

And what if this happens again and again and again and again? What do we lose? Do we listen only when the coast is clear?

Of course, it’s not accidental that my head is spinning with images of children in danger. Despite not having any children of my own, I am angry about the children being separated from their parents at the border. I don’t need to be a parent in order to feel like those children belong to me somehow. Whether or not we choose to feel it, suffering and the vicarious pain of watching another suffer are universal. I am angry and distraught about families being held in detention, indefinitely. I am worried about the prospect of the rolling back of civil rights for many of us. I grieve about the continual damage we inflict upon the planet, knowing that we have all the information we need about the climate and environmental action we have to take. I worry about the dismantling of institutions, norms, and principles. I am scared that we will forget what facts and democracy look like. I am sick from a steady diet of nauseous lies.

This is the truck that I am facing, on most days.

Nevertheless, I cannot excuse myself from listening. None of us can. Listening is how we bear witness. The listening is the way that we show attention and intimacy. Listening is love. Yes, listening is love. I didn’t get the quotation wrong at the beginning. Intentionally, I draw a moral equivalence between the two — listening and love. It’s hard to love when you’re bracing for impact. It’s hard to listen when you’re bracing for impact. We persist, because our hearts and our bodies require intimacy. According to my friend and colleague Akaya Winwood, a brilliant social justice activist and community educator, “Listening is one of the deepest forms of intimacy. Maybe even more so than sex.”

I wish I were a more promiscuous listener.

Listening — and being listened to — is a primary human need. Listening is also the way that some of us make a living. I listen professionally. In my work, I listen deeply to conversations — strategy planning, brainstorming, change management, product and service development, how to use design thinking, forecasting — and I visually chronicle the conversation on a large sheet of paper in the front of the room. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. It is called graphic facilitation or visual scribing. While some think of it as primarily an illustrative or artistic function, I see my most important role as being the dedicated listener in the room.

Most likely, I get more practice at listening than many people. Still, I can always learn more about how to listen better and in more diverse ways. To that end, I embarked upon a self-designed research project about three years ago to learn more about how other people listen. My questions have been simple: How do you listen? Why does listening matter? How did you learn to listen? About 80 or so interviews down the line, with people from a variety of contexts and walks of life, I have learned a lot about listening. More than I ever expected.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to turn my interviews and learning into a book someday. That’s my plan, although I love the research phase. I want to continue doing more and more interviews, perhaps indefinitely, because I enjoy talking to people about listening. Whatever happens, the interviews have been one of the great gifts of my life. Of course, the interviews are useful to me professionally because I would like to be a more versatile and virtuosic listener in my work. More importantly, as I have reread my notes and listened to interview recordings again, I have learned valuable insights about listening for healing, providing safety, and showing compassion. Somehow, being a listener with intention in this unsettling, tumultuous, and unpredictable time moment feels like the right and necessary thing to do.

Marc Skvirsky has been one of my teachers about how to listen when it feels difficult — and dangerous — to do so. Marc is vice president and chief program officer at Facing History and Ourselves, a non-profit international education and professional development organization. The organization is dedicated to engaging “students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives.”

I met Marc several years ago. We have worked together on a few occasions. He has been a valuable resource in my explorations of forgiveness and of listening. When I interviewed Marc a little over a year ago, he started out by saying, with great humility, “I don’t know if I’ll have anything useful to say.” Given that I got up at 5:30 AM on the west coast in order to catch him on the east coast before he began his busy day, I assured Marc that I didn’t get up that early for just anybody. He proceeded to give me one of the best and most enlightening interviews I have ever conducted.

Marc was one of the early witnesses and researchers who viewed countless videotaped testimonies from Holocaust survivors in the early 1980s. About this experience of listening to and viewing interviews with survivors, Marc recalled:

“We would listen to hours and hours of testimony. Then we would come back and talk with each other about what we heard. From the survivors, and from the interviewers. This was transformative for us.”

Marc and his cohort received a grant to figure out how to use the testimonies in classrooms as education around racism, prejudice, and genocide. Since then, Facing History and Ourselves has established itself as a global leader in educating students and teachers about mass violence in history and its connections to moral choices in the present. It isn’t easy work at all. As the name suggests, Facing History and Ourselves requires a commitment to bearing witness to the worst of human behavior while examining one’s own story, morals, values, prejudices, identities, stereotypes, and decisions.

When I asked Marc about how he learned to listen, especially to stories of trauma and violence, Marc offered some useful ideas:

To do deep listening, you need to suspend a little bit of yourself. Listen to commonalities, yes, but listen to what is unique. What is the person actually saying? Slow down. Honor another’s voice by not immediately leaping to judgment.

Marc went on to elucidate the point:

It was interesting to watch the interviewers as people were telling them things that were so difficult, so traumatic. The interviewers were not totally listening. They were trying to interpret, through their own worldviews. There was a girl who went into hiding with her parents and pretended that she was Christian. They were betrayed, and her parents were killed. The girl went into a camp. When the girl was interviewed later, as an adult woman, the interviewer kept trying to sanitize her experience. “Didn’t people play with you? Talk with you?”

“No” she said. “I didn’t talk for two and a half years. I was totally dehumanized.”

When we interpret others’ experiences through our own frameworks and points of reference, we aren’t really listening. We try to understand the differences in others’ experiences by making them more like our own. As a result, we listen for what is familiar rather than what is. Marc challenges us to think about ourselves, and others, differently:

How do we think about “identity” in more complex ways? When we explore identity, we break down stereotypes. Often, when we look at other people, we try to “make sense” of them and try to figure out which categories they fit into. Look at your own identities. How do you think of yourself? What has impact and influence on how you act and think in the world? How do others see you? Build your own personal narrative. How do you navigate the world? What are your issues around friendship, betrayal, exclusion, and community?

There is so much thoughtfulness here. The gentleness and generosity that imbues and guides Marc’s philosophy of listening is remarkable, given that he has listened and listened and listened again to stories of horror, fear, rupture, erasure, and heartbreak for over thirty years. Although Marc is an extraordinary human being, I learned from him that listening need not be an extraordinary act. It is about paying attention to and listening to our own inner voice — and then being willing to set it aside to allow for a clear(er) channel. Listening is listening, not interpreting. Marc’s anecdotes and reflections on his work have taught me, too, that listening is about narrative and stories. Every room, organization, neighborhood, city, and family has an abundance of stories. The exchange of stories helps people to listen. We are a collection of listeners, of stories. Imagine for a moment all the wisdom and experiences that reside in that beautiful and rich space. What could happen if we shared our stories abundantly while making room for other stories to enlighten us? Is there power there? I think so. With the shared power of story, we might not feel so alone.

Again, something that Akaya taught me comes to mind:

The world changes because of the STORIES WE TELL. If I’m only listening for my point of view, I miss a lot. There’s lots of noise right now. It’s hard to tune in to what’s NOT noise…What happens if I let MY story drop away for a minute? If we are going to change the world, we need to listen with each other.

Listening with each other. Yes. Marc’s — and Akaya’s — recommendations for listening are inherently social and community-based. Listening together — to a conversation, to a piece of music, to literature — gives us insight about what we hear in common as well as what is unique to our own listening. I am reminded of another percipient interview that I had with Michael Romanowski, a sound mastering engineer in Berkeley, CA. He turned me onto the idea of the “socialness of listening.” When I asked him about how people could learn to listen better, he said, “Listen in a group.” Talk about what you’re hearing — together. Ask each other what they heard. Open up your perspective. There is no one “official” version of the music. People may hear things “bassy”, “bright”, “squished”, and “flat.” It’s all about the translation of the signal.

Social listening. How might we “hear the music”, so to speak, in a new and refreshing way if we were given the opportunity to listen through someone else’s ears? We could test our assumptions and challenge our own listening. It could be mind-blowing, in a good way.

I feel compelled to pause here and say that nothing I am suggesting requires us to seek out and entertain those who want only to hurl invective and toxicity at us. We are not obliged to appease the avowed racists, homophobes, and bigots among us by cowering in silence in the name of “listening.” There is no imperative here that one should completely abandon one’s point of view or perspective in order to accommodate the boorish, the bellicose, the mendacious, or the sanctimonious. The invitation here is to lead with listening, inquiry, and empathy, rather than leading with monologue, proclamation, and antipathy. How do we create the space, internally and in the environments around us, for listening to happen?

For Maya Mumma, creating the internal space for listening to happen is crucial to her work as a listener as well as for her self-care. Sometimes, creating that internal space requires a “cleanse” or “unlistening” of sorts.

Maya is a documentary film and video editor based in New York. She may not be a household name, but she has been a creative force behind such well-known and acclaimed projects like Restrepo, O.J.: Made In America, and Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You. Yes, Maya is a big deal. When you have edited projects that have won Sundance Grand Jury awards and Oscars, you legitimately qualify as a pretty big deal.

Restrepo is both brilliantly directed and edited — and often difficult to watch. For a year, the filmmakers followed an American platoon posted in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan at the height of the war there in 2007. The film has often been described as “visceral” because of the real-life footage of combat, danger, and the emotional tumult experienced by the platoon members. One doesn’t just observe the film. It requires something of you.

When I spoke to Maya on the phone, and then again when I sat down with her in New York in the fall of 2017, I asked her about the impact of editing a film like Restrepo. Wasn’t it difficult to sit with hours and hours of footage that bore witness to some of the worst elements of human experience?

You need to know that Maya conveys sweetness, kindness, strength, and tenacity, all at once. She expresses empathy with ease and authenticity, while simultaneously exuding a sense of assurance, competence, and equanimity that makes you want to say, “Can I just hire you to run my life?” Such a temperament makes for a great editor. Stories deserve capable hands — and a magnanimous heart.

To my question, Maya replied:

On Restrepo, the conversations we were having were so intense. I was taking on very emotional stories and holding them. Compared to what I was listening to in the edit room, I had a hard time hearing casual or flippant conversations because they just seemed silly. Maybe it’s similar to the experience of a social worker or a psychiatrist. I didn’t want to engage in trite conversation. I needed to spend my energy on what I was doing on the film.

It is an interesting notion: conserving one’s energy in order to listen deeply. As I said about viewing Restrepo, listening requires something of us. Sometimes, listening requires a lot from us. When we choose to listen to trauma, grief, injustice, or inhumanity, do we have the energy to sustain that kind of listening over time? Are we sufficiently fit for such a challenge? Everybody, regardless of emotional fitness, needs to rest and recharge at some point. If we don’t, we run the risk of fatigue, collapse, resentment, or despair.

After a long day in the edit suite, Maya has her own process of resting and recharging.

Listening is an intention. It’s a shift into something active. Quiet is a listening cleanse. [After editing] I’d be quiet on the walk home. I take long walks to the subway. The street can be strangely quiet. At least the noise is diffuse. I have my rituals. When I first get home, I don’t listen to anything. Then I just do “benign listening” where I don’t really have to listen deeply or pay attention. My husband has even commented that I listen to things quietly at home, like music or tv. I like visuals. I don’t often get overloaded visually.

My apartment is very quiet. Maybe something is droning in the background. After I’ve been listening all day, I don’t even listen to music very much anymore. I used to have headphones. When I have headphones, I’m forced to listen. So I don’t wear them sometimes. At the end of a day, I have a hard time having a deep conversation. If my husband wants to talk about the state of the world, it takes me a while to get there.

Dangerous times require us to be fit, physically and emotionally. Dangerous and difficult times also require us to care for ourselves, maybe better than we ever have. If listening can be a choice and intention, then quiet and rest can also be a choice and intention, too. Perhaps we don’t have to listen as rigorously as Maya does on a daily basis. We can, however, learn from her example. Those who choose to be listeners must also practice “unlistening” at times. You can’t go without sleep for days on end. You can’t sprint full out everywhere you go. You can’t listen to everything and everyone all the time.

Part of the reason why it’s so hard to listen right now is that we don’t feel like anybody is listening to us and our concerns, fears, and vulnerabilities. We are either bracing for impact or girding for war. It’s tiring and demoralizing.

When I interviewed Denver-based clinical psychologist Justine Uselding, she said something mid-interview that stopped me cold in my tracks: “Listening is great…but who listens to YOU?”

Who listens to you?

Justine has worked with the gamut of clients, including people in the federal and state prison systems, the private prison system, inpatient drug treatment, hospice, and post-acute rehabs, to name a few. In other words, she works with people we don’t usually spend a lot of time listening to.

Justine will be the first to tell you that she doesn’t expect accolades or awards for her work. In fact, she is neither the earnestly benevolent saint nor the irritatingly unctuous martyr. Her outlook on the world is delightfully irreverent, complete with a raucous laugh and hilarious coinage of phrase. When talking about listening, though, Justine softens a bit. As she speaks about her responsibility as a listener, her voice is warm with wisdom, experience, compassion, and self-possession. I can tell that this is important to her. She thinks deeply about the restorative potential of listening and her own role as a healer.

When I am doing psychotherapy, I’m actively listening through my eye contact and body language. This is far more important than people realize. It’s a big part of people feeling listened to. Most communication is attended to, listened to, and felt subjectively via signals like voice tone, posture, gesture, speech prosody, and pauses versus the actual content of their disclosures. People need to see you listening. You need to demonstrate listening in a real and observable way, not just perform it, because the listening is where you form the helping, trusting, and healing relationship needed for successful psychotherapy. Healing requires felt presence of the listening therapist by the talking patient. However, we have to titrate how intrusive our presence is with regard to listening. It can be rather terrifying sometimes for traumatized people to speak and be listened to, so we have to be mindful that too much eye contact or leaning in, postural stuff, and all those nonverbal behaviors can actually perceived as frightening. We observe how people respond to our listening, and we adjust our responses accordingly. This is the eternal dialectical dance of psychotherapy: integrating new meaning and understanding via the process of presence.

Who listens to you? How do they listen to you? Are you being listened to in the way that you need to be listened to? We don’t need to be therapists in order to develop our capacities for “felt presence.” Listening is where we form the helping, trusting, and healing relationships needed to be successful humans.

Like Justine, Monica Chen keenly understands the “how” of listening. She is the director of volunteers at San Francisco Sex Information. It’s a phone line in San Francisco that provides non-judgmental information and support for people who have questions about sex and sexuality.

When I spoke with Monica, she immediately put me at ease. Her guidance for non-judgmental listening seemed universally applicable, not just for conversations about sex:

Being good with silence is crucial. Sometimes people are just trying to figure things out and sit with something for a moment… When someone is asking for help, listening is one of the main skills you can offer. We listen to what the caller needs. People don’t know who to turn to. We give people the space to feel comfortable, permission to ask questions, and to express themselves. We let them do the talking. The key is to NOT share everything that you know. What is the caller needing? Don’t dump a lot of information on the caller. Ask specific questions. There’s always a lot to learn…”

Let them do the talking? When was the last time you did that?

When people want to feel heard, when they are scared or vulnerable, they don’t need to know about you in that moment. They want to talk about what THEY are scared about. Let them. There will be time to share your feelings, commiserate, or respond with an anecdote about how you experienced the same thing just yesterday. My mentor Paul Saffo — forecaster, signal-senser, provocateur, conversation convener — says, “Good listening is good manners. There is no bigger gift to somebody than listening to them while they tell a story.” Be respectful. Act like you are interested. You may be doing more good than you know. If someone has a story to tell — however inchoate or circuitous — create the space. Hold the space. Protect the space. And let them tell it…

Listening is intimate. Maybe more intimate than sex.

Many of us are bracing for impact, not intimacy. We are preparing for the onslaught, the siege, the incipience of danger. I know I am.

I find it hard to listen right now. It’s hard to love. I have to will myself to be gentle sometimes, because being gentle and being generous are not well-rewarded these days. It feels onerous to protect others with my listening when I am trying to protect myself. Who cares about the listening? After all, amidst the noise and chaos and tumult and ruckus, what does listening accomplish anyway?

The listening is how we love. The listening is how we acknowledge another’s being, another’s humanness, another’s aloneness. The choice to listen is about bravery, empathy, and creating refuge.

“I’m with you. I have you. I’m here.”

We can’t guarantee another’s safety. Still, if you can, listen to the people who are frightened by uncertainty and feel alone. They need to feel heard. The storytelling and storylistening of where we have been are as vital as air, food, water, shelter, and clothes. We wear our stories on our backs. Listen now and then to another’s breathing to make sure we are both still alive. Invest in the restorative power of quiet. Practice “constructive unlistening” sometimes. Listen to your own breath, your own story. If you still aren’t sure how to listen, pay attention. There are all kinds of people in the world who can be your listening teachers.

This is what we do in dangerous times. We listen — because our healing, our humanity, and our survival depend on it.

Anthony Weeks

July 17, 2018

Anthony Weeks is a public listener, writer, and storyteller based in San Francisco, CA.

  • *The author’s use of “they” acknowledges gender fluidity and non-binary descriptions of gender.
“Untitled” by Anthony Weeks copyright 2018