A week ago, Amanda Gorman took the world by storm with her magnificent inaugural poem. Her final words have reverberated in my mind since:
There is always light.
If only we’re brave enough to SEE it.
If only we’re brave enough to BE it.
These words mean many things to me, but what I’ve been thinking about most is listening as a tool to see the light. When we listen, we are more likely to learn about others’ experiences and increase our understanding of the need for equity and justice.
In this post, I channel Wonder Woman as an inspiration for using our power for good, listening to others’ needs, and being brave and courageous in taking bold steps toward change. You’ll learn the three levels of listening and a helpful acrostic for practicing excellent listening skills. I also include related resources.
Over the weekend, I rewatched the 2017 Wonder Woman movie (far superior to the 2020 sequel!). It’s such a beautiful and inspiring film to me because Diana Prince is unapologetic and wholeheartedly determined in her mission to save humanity against Ares, the god of war. Though she didn’t know it, it was her life’s purpose and the reason for her existence to pursue this mission.
My favorite moment in the film is when, during World War I, she climbs out of a trench on the front line and fights her way through ‘No Man’s Land’ — the bombed-out area separating enemy trenches. Determined to restore a supply chain to a little town starving to death and where the enemy enslaved its people, she took a bold step alone, against the advisement of everyone around her. And though stunned and hesitant, the men followed her lead. (the scene starts at about 1:11:30 if you want to watch it)
Of course, Wonder Woman is brave and courageous; she’s a demi-goddess fictional character. Bravery and courage aren’t just for super-heroes and demi-goddesses, though, and the absence of fear isn’t a requirement for either. Instead, bravery is the choice to face fear as you meet new experiences or difficult situations.
What makes us afraid?
In general, people fear change. People fear losing power, privilege, position, or comfort. After all, facing systemic inequities isn’t comfortable for most people who are complicit in upholding those systems, especially when they don’t know that they are and feel indicted at the thought. People fear and actively fight against giving others equal rights and equitable access. People operate from the belief that another’s gain must be someone else’s loss. People claim “All Lives Matter” in retort to any focus otherwise. In a grotesque form of gaslighting, people accuse social justice activists and equity professionals of inciting divisiveness when it’s the obstinance for change that is the issue. It is the obstinance to listen. It’s the obstinance to examine the truth for what it might reveal.
It takes courage and bravery to look and listen.
Are we brave enough?
Like so many others, I was captivated by Amanda Gorman’s words at the inauguration on January 20, reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
The poem began with the question:
When it comes to equity, whether racial, gender, or any other dimension of identity, this is the question many of us ask and feel deeply in our bones. Here we are in 2021, where one’s race, gender, zip code, and sexuality can predict one’s access and potential within education and the workforce, and a determinate of inequities in housing, pay, healthcare, and more. When the effects of the global pandemic hit your bubble, whether it is the loss of income, loved-ones, or perhaps even your sanity, the never-ending shade can feel dark and overwhelming. As families and communities grow increasingly more divided over not just politics but equality and justice, the shadow in the chasm feels consuming. Maybe it’s just me, but for many reasons, 2020 was dark.
The poem ended with a claim and a challenge:
I love her final words and now immortalized quote because it so beautifully encapsulates my personal and professional mission: to provide services, tools, and resources that inspire awareness (SEE) and initiate action (BE) that create change (LIGHT).
In the scene I first described, Diana Prince only knew that the specific need existed because she stopped in the trench as war exploded around them to listen to a crying woman holding her baby plead for help. From inside the dark trench, Diana saw the light – the hope of a better outcome, and she became the light.
- Are we brave enough to step into the trenches?
- Are we brave enough to stop and listen to those around us?
- Are we brave enough to take action and charge toward change?
Are we listening?
A couple of weeks ago, I was catching up with a friend on a video call. We’d not spoken in probably six months. She shared how she had been feeling, among other things, sad and lacking confidence in her work. I quickly began to offer her copious amounts of gratuitous encouragement.
She interrupted me and said, “I don’t feel safe talking to you.” You see, she didn’t need me to encourage her and placate her with platitudes. She needed me to listen. Ironically, I’d been right where she was and felt the same thing from many of my friends during a low spot in 2020. Toxic positivity during a dark time isn’t helpful. What a gift she gave me that day.
Listening is a critical life skill, yet we are not likely to learn how to listen adeptly without instruction.
With that in mind, one of last week’s topics in a program I am leading on Coaching for Educational Equity with a group of Illinois higher education professionals was listening. As I prepared for the lesson, and as I guide the participants in asynchronous learning and discussion on Elevate Inclusion, I’ve continued to consider: Am I listening? Who am I listening to, and how can I help others listen? How do my mindset, world-view, and biases filter what I hear? What about you?
Think of a time when you felt heard. What was unique about that interaction that led you to feel like the other person truly listened to you? How did you feel as a result of being heard?
To help us build the courage to listen bravely and act courageously, see and be the light, let’s look at the skill of listening to others a little closer.
Three Levels of Listening
In the book Co-Active Coaching, the authors detail three levels of listening. Expand each question to learn more.
At level 1, our awareness is on ourselves. We listen to the other person’s words, but our attention is on what it means to us personally. There is only one question: What does this mean to me? Including my thoughts, my judgments, my feelings, and my conclusions.
At level 2, there is a sharp focus on the other person, listening for their words, expressions, emotions, etc. You are paying attention to context cues: not only what they say, but how they say it and what they don’t say. You also tune into what you perceive as their values and how they look at the world. Level 2 is empathic, clarifying, and collaborative—the question in mind is: What does this mean to them?
At level 3, you listen as if you and the other are at the center of the universe, receiving information from everywhere at once, often described as environmental listening. The authors describe this as a force field containing you, such that everything you can observe (see, hear, smell, feel) become a type of hidden radio wave that you can tune into and receive. At level 3, you are sensitive to subtle stimuli from the other person, including how they respond to what you say and the environment itself. Consider this reading a room, monitoring how it changes in response to you, and adjusting appropriately. Global listening includes tapping into your intuition, but it is essential to keep in mind your intuition could be biased. The guiding question for level 3 is: To understand better, what are all of the discernable elements telling me?
*As a facilitator, global listening is a critical skill and one I am always working to improve, though virtual learning has proven a challenge for level 3 listening!
How do we listen better?
The HEAR strategy (by Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers) helps us recognize and block out noise and devote attention to listening to one another. The HEAR strategy consists of four steps, in a handy acrostic, where I overlay the three levels of listening.
Stop what you are doing. Clear your inner dialogue to give the speaker your attention. This is the moment when you choose to listen at Level II.
Focus on the speaker. Signal to them that you are focused on what they are saying. This is where you practice Level II listening.
Listen with the anticipation and expectation that you will likely learn something new and interesting. Level III listening really helps here.
To ensure understanding, replay a paraphrased analysis of the information you have heard. “What I hear you saying is…” followed by, “is that right?” or something similar.
- Over the next few days, check-in with yourself and identify which level of listening you are most often using and with which people.
- Practice using the HEAR strategy to improve your listening.
When it comes to difficult conversations that trigger our fears, we must choose to be brave and step boldly onto the battlefield to fight, in whatever way we can, for equality and justice for all.
May we all be brave enough to listen.
May we all be brave enough to change.
May we use our power for the greater good.
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