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  • Mairin McCracken

The Huddle #57: Listen


In light of recent events, I’m finding that my inner pendulum is constantly swinging from despair to hope, despair, hope, despair…. 


Our feelings are helpful in giving us information about ourselves, but they’re not that very useful when it comes to actually making changes. There’s been a lot of talk about change- not just a change of heart, but real, walk-the-walk, change. Social media is full of posts about “Doing the work,” and “Having tough conversations.” Regardless of where you are in your journey toward woke-ness, we’re all going to be prompted by, or prompting, some uncomfy but necessary conversations in the coming days, months, years.  And it all starts with listening.  


As a teacher, I’ve come to know the importance of listening. I have to admit, I spent my first few months of teaching as a listening con artist. I would fake listen- nod my head, show a look of deep concern on my face, and then when the student was done airing their grievances, I would be ready with my laundry list of what they did wrong and how they needed to correct it. Clearly, this didn’t help me build strong relationships, and the kids- darn little geniuses- always saw right through it. 


With adults in my life, I’ve often visualized hard conversations as a tennis match between myself and the person I disagree with. Better have those rebuttals ready because- WHAM!- I’m coming for you! Needless to say, this strategy hasn't worked out so well, mostly because I am terrible at tennis. I have this thing where I plant my feet in the ground and forget to move them. Similarly, if I view a conversation as a debate, I plant my feet in my argument and refuse to budge. No movement, just “But, like, I said, white chocolate isn’t chocolate! It’s a fakeout!!!” We’ve all experienced it- a heated debate is great for lighthearted squabbles, but from my experience, it rarely leads to a shift in perspective. When have you ever seen a tennis player drop their racket and walk over to the other side? Never. There is no listening here. 


My mom used to always tell me to “Speak without offending, listen without defending.” It took me until the last year or two to really practice this, and it led to a total demolition of how I viewed hard conversations. Instead of two people standing on opposite sides of a net, whacking a ball at each other’s faces, I began to visualize my counterpart and I standing in front of a piece of artwork, on the same side of the painting, sharing our interpretations. Remember in elementary school, when the teacher would hold up those black and white images and someone in the class would shout, “ It’s a bird!” and someone else would respond, “It’s a woman!” and another kid would say, “You’re both wrong, it’s a Coca-Cola bottle!”. It’s like that. 


When our conversations get a little more intense, we can get pretty adamant that what we’re seeing is the only way to see things. The air between us can thicken with righteousness, and if you’re anything like me, you could feel emotions bubbling up to the surface. 


Here’s what I have to say about that: First of all, getting emotional is a good thing. It shows that this is a conversation worth having. It means something. Secondly, just because we want our emotions in the car does not mean we want them at the wheel. Sometimes, I feel so passionately about something- say, oh I don’t know, systemic racism, for example- that my tone can teeter on the edge of passion and anger. Even though my anger is not directed at the person I’m chatting with, it can come across that way. The result? My energy becomes depleted, and I leave the conversation feeling like I was yelling without yelling. Listening is not happening here. 


I went to clean out my classroom last week and came across a poster of our agreements for hard conversations (we call them circles, because when we have big talks, we sit in a circle). At the risk of entering Teacher Mode, I thought I’d share a few of our circle agreements with you, because I find myself coming back to them from time to time as a grounding reminder of how we can do this. Note: the examples used here are things kids say, but hopefully you get the idea. 


  1. Show active listening: Okay, this one is kind of a “Duh.” But really, feet planted, arms uncrossed, phone away, brow unfurrowed. 

  2. Use observational language. This means using our eyes and ears to tell what we noticed. Rather than, “You hurt my feelings,” kids will say, “You stepped on my toe after I asked you to stop. When it happened a second time, my feelings were hurt.” It’s the same thing with apologies. I forget this one a lot, which means I am often managing other people’s emotions for them. The truth is, we don’t know how other people are affected by our actions. That’s why we’re talking- to find out! Instead of “I’m sorry for annoying you on the Zoom call today,” we can try, “I’m sorry for unmuting myself and eating crunchy granola on the Zoom call today. If someone did that to me, I would be pretty annoyed!” 

  3. Listen with your whole heart. We store two emotions in our heart: courage and love. This is to say, listen with courage and love- the courage it takes to risk potential failure or rejection., to listen to someone else’s perspective. It takes love to imagine that this person has good intentions. 


If you’ll join me, I’m planning to open myself up to a hard conversation this week between none other than me and Me. I’m going to call myself out for some uncool things I’ve done in the past. I’m going to listen to the Me-est me with my whole heart, and I’m going to be honest about what I need moving forward. Down the road, in conversations with myself and with others, I’m going to forget to listen. And then I’ll come back. And then forget, and then come back. Until eventually, if I keep listening, it’ll be there, unrelenting, buzzing in the background… 


And it sounds like hope. 


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