Listening well as a person of privilege: Communicate on their terms, not your own

Note: This is the 3rd post in an ongoing series on Listening Well as a Person of Privilege. If you've been energized by this series, I encourage you to be on the lookout for my book "The Priesthood of the Privileged" which I hope will be out at some point in 2014.

I’ve talked with many privileged people who, after months of intentional “listening”, are frustrated that oppressed people rarely “speak their minds” to privileged people. One of my educated white friends who’s been living among and building solidarity with young, urban Latinas for over a year recently complained, “I’m listening, but no one’s talking.” From my friend’s perspective, the young women don’t share openly about their experiences, their fears, their emotions, anything.

Oppressed people often communicate well with the privileged folks around them, but privileged people’s expectations of direct communication can blind them to the indirect communication that’s going on right in front of them.  I've written about privileged people's fine-tuned critical-thinking skills. But in order to listen well as a person of privilege, privileged folks must also develop critical-listening skills.

It’s all about the listener

The U.S. is a listener-centric culture[i]; all communication is centered around and caters to the listener. As such, speakers do everything they can to communicate in a clear, engaging and relevant way so that the listener just has to sit back, relax and soak in the information. Since the speaker is responsible for communicating in a verbal manner, the listener isn’t expected to pay attention to nonverbal behaviors or contextual cues in order to decipher the message. The speaker is responsible for doing all of the hard work of communicating well and for the most part, the listener gets to chill. How does the Nirvana song go? “Here we are now, entertain us.” Yep, that’s the attitude listeners typically have in listener-centric cultures.

Privileged people who have mastered this active speaking/passive listening pattern of communicating can unintentionally continue to use that pattern when communicating with oppressed people. Here’s what it looks like: when privileged people are the speakers, they often attempt to do the hard work of communicating clearly to the oppressed listener. But when the privileged people are the listeners, they often sit back, relax and expect the oppressed speaker to do the hard work of communicating clearly to them.  The unfortunate and counterproductive result is that when privileged people (who haven’t considered the effects of their active speaking/passive listening style) attempt to listen well, they end up playing the passive role of listeners in a listener-centric communication style that centers on and caters to the needs of the privileged person. In the end, it’s all about the privileged people.

Listening well as a person of privilege means it can’t be all about you, the listener

As people of power who have not been systematically silenced, privileged folks are accustomed to openly speaking their minds; if they have something important to say, they typically say it. So when privileged people show up to intentionally listen to oppressed folks, it’s easy for privileged people to expect oppressed folks to start sharing openly ASAP, preferably in a clear, verbal manner that is easy for the privileged person to understand.  But it seldom works that way.

One reason oppressed people may not raise their voice is because they’re coping with the effects of years of being silenced and ignored by privileged people. When you’ve tried to speak up in the past to no avail, you become less interested in speaking up. Another reason is that due to a variety of societal injustices, oppressed people may not have had opportunities to “speak up” over the years and may not have developed the self-efficacy and communication skills to feel comfortable speaking up now, especially in a listener-centric culture that puts so much pressure on the speaker to communicate clearly and eloquently to the listener. When you’re rarely given the mic, your emcee skills tend to get rusty. 

Consequently, while some oppressed folks speak up in a "direct" manner that's easy for privileged people to understand, many don't. But that doesn't mean they're not talking to you in profound and relational ways! I've found that a lot of my communication with oppressed people in my neighborhood occurs in the form of nonverbal behaviors and contextual cues. My neighborhood friends speak loudly, clearly and wisely in this manner, but it's easy for me to miss their thoughts if I'm not willing to communicate on their terms, in the medium of communication that makes sense in their cultural context. If privileged people want to listen well, they must think outside of the cultural box and adopt a different communication approach – one that is all about the speaker.

Making it all about the speaker

Consistent with the posture of humility and self-sacrificial love that I described in Part 1 of this series, I’d like to suggest a speaker-centric approach[ii] to crosscultural communication between privileged and oppressed folks.  In this approach, the listener does the hard work of understanding the speaker, gleaning everything he/she can from verbal communication as well as contextual cues and nonverbal behaviors.  In order to do this, the listener must become a student of the speaker’s culture, taking the time to learn the elements of the culture that help him/her interpret emotion, understand inside jokes, and discern hot button issues whether the speaker verbally communicates this information or not.  In this speaker-centric approach, the listener is responsible for gathering the supplementary information that might be needed in order to understand the speaker.

Here are some suggestions for privileged folks who want to adopt this voracious style of listening:

1. Try not to underestimate the communicative power of nonverbal behavior. For example, if one of my neighbors hosts a family birthday party and invites me to it, whether I talk much with my neighbor or not at the party, I pay close attention to her behavior at the party. I try to think of the invitation to the party as an invitation to a conversation and my neighbor's nonverbal behavior as words. When I do that, I learn more about my neighbors values, expectations for her children, even some of her scars than I would have if I'd had a one-on-one conversation with her. By inviting me to the party - into her inner circle of friends and family - she is speaking to me. I just have to participate and pay attention.

2. Seek feedback. When observing and deciphering contextual cues and nonverbal behaviors (like I might do at my neighbor's party), it helps if privileged folks communicate their observations and ask those around them to confirm or disconfirm them. Indirect communication is tricky, especially if you're a cultural outsider. It's best to set the record straight by seeking feedback.

3. Ask clarification questions. Lots of them.

4. Pick up a book (or ten). In order to ask informed questions and better understand contextual cues, it's helpful to read books about the speaker’s culture. (This seems obvious but you'd be surprised at how often I meet privileged people who haven't read anything about an oppressed person's culture yet expect that person to tutor them in everything they need to know about the person. Not cool.)

5. Ask the speaker if you're listening well and if he/she feels heard by you and understood by you. Don't forget to pay attention to nonverbal cues when the speaker is responding to this question!

Any other suggestions?


[i] The technical term is “low context” culture.

[ii] Adapted from research on “high context” cultures.