Radical Listening

Stumbled upon the idea of “radical listeningon Twitter. It complements the Three Types of Listening I learned the other day, so I decided to share it here today.

First, what is this “radical listening” thing?

Dr. Jason Purnell, an esteemed community leader, professor, and researcher at Washington University, said this: “[Radical listening is…] listening to understand and not to respond. Listening until you enter into the other’s person’s reality as much as you are able and are engaged — and changed — as a result.” (source)

The core idea is to be present, continuously notice and tame our assumptions & conclusions, and seek to make that connection with the other person — to see the person as a whole, listen to their experience, and seek to understand their point of view.

Good listening is turning down the volume of your internal chatter and turning up the volume of the person who is speaking.

This is a practice and we need to keep training that muscle to not let our own preconceived biases, stereotypes, and perceptions pollute the conversation.

In this article. Saras shared three practical things to help us stay radical in our listening.

  1. Ask good questions. Often I get the most amount of nuance when asking questions that lean into something they’ve already said. “Can I go back to something you mentioned about…” is a great way to dig deeper. “Is there anything else that you think is important to share?”
  2. Watch your body language. How are you sitting? Where are your eyes? Watch your face. The great thing about our current environment of Zoom-ing is that you can see what you look like when you’re listening to someone talk. Check-in with an honest friend for feedback. Do you have the face of someone who is genuinely interested and encouraging someone to share, or do you look combative, disapproving, or bored? Many of us don’t realize just how angry we look when we’re really just curious or thinking.
  3. Leave judgment at the door. Your values. Your morals. Your ethics. Leave all that at the door and ask questions that suggest anything is game. In our work to understand barriers of sending children to preschool for communities in poverty, instead of asking, “Does your child go to school?” we asked, “How does your child spend their day?” It’s not perfect, but it’s better than leading.

These take preparation and practice to get good at. I feel being too self conscious of my body language could be counterproductive, so I would personally boil these down to: be curious, this person is just like me and hope remembering that would automatically rewire my body language, tame my judgements, and trigger better questions.

So, whose voice is louder in your head when you’re listening?


(Artwork by Sherrill Knezel)

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