When I was a Sophomore in college, I spent a semester abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I was studying psychology and my school had a campus in Cape Town for psych students to participate in an internship-style learning experience for credits. I will never forget the words of my professor when we began working in our selected townships – towns literally formed from apartheid era consisting of 100% black and colored (yes – that is an accurate term in South Africa) people groups. We were warned about the tendency we might subconsciously have to act as the “white savior complex” – essentially meaning “you will want to talk over and invalidate what is being said or communicated, but instead, validate pieces of information you find to match what you have already concluded going into this situation.”
He said this to me before I started my first day entering the township: “I know you are going to think you know what this community needs. You do not. You will need to step down, step aside, and let this community tell you what they need (*and it will not come from what they tell you is needed- you will know by what is not said, and by listening. It is not their responsibility to tell you, so you will have to listen more intently in other ways). This township has been dehumanized and brutalized by white people – you will be seen as a threat, as an ‘other’. You do not have their trust. You will need to earn that, and you will need to listen.”
To understand a community, he was emphasizing, meant I would need to pick up on what is not being said, which means I better hone in without interrupting. How much more I learned to integrate into and understand this community after three months of observing and immersing. They became my people – my students would take me on walks around the block to point out their homes or where they checked out books from a library. The little girls I tutored would draw me pictures about their family living situation or lack there of. The teachers I was learning from would give me snippets of context about the education system dynamic I was working in. I was able to serve these students far better at the end of my time than I did at the beginning. No amount of classroom lecture time in LA could have taught me that lesson.
LexBlog shared a post today by Cordell Parvin. I clicked the link, read the post, and decided I enjoyed Cordell’s writing enough (short and simple posts) to continue into the archives of his other blog posts. I came across one, What Might Be the Most Important Skill to Develop? which quickly caught my attention. The most important skill to develop? Just in general? The most important skill to learn in relationships? And work? And in the classroom? If there’s one skill that’s worth mastering it’s this? Alright, I’ll take two minutes of my day to unlock the secret if it’s the most important skill out there.
Here’s my key takeaway –
A good lawyer listens and hears what is said. A great lawyer listens and hears what is said and is able to discern what isn’t said.
In my opinion, I think a good lawyer hears, listens, then discerns – in that order. I think a good human hears, listens, discerns – in that order. Not to play on words, but I do think there’s a specific order we subconsciously follow when we’re conversing with another. Whether it’s right or not, humans tend to be reactors. We hear, and we react. Whether that reaction be a simple statement back, an action follow-up, or an impulsive response, humans innately feel the knee-jerk reaction to fill the silence and impose answers, often times missing the meat of the message the other is trying to convey.
I do it constantly when dialoguing with friends, co-workers, family members, the cashier at the store, the nurse at the doctors’ office – I find myself hearing words that spill out of their mouth and quickly trying to muster up a response before they even finish their thought. The quicker I respond, the less silence there is to fill, the less awkward the interaction. Maybe, perhaps, we fill silence in a professional setting because we want to show we’re anticipating needs before they’re even conveyed. Maybe we rush to answers to show our expertise on the topic – exceptionally advanced in a subject, we don’t even take a split second to think about the ‘right’ answer.
It’s no wonder therapists listen much more than they talk to understand their client. I went to therapy twice and both times left frustrated that my therapist wasn’t giving me answers or solving my problems in the first two sessions. How could she when she didn’t have all the information necessary? Of course she wasn’t concluding answers off of two hour-long sessions, but my instant-gratification-loving self started to wonder how long she was going to let me talk before interjecting with a magic solution. Why does being a therapist feel sacred and unattainable for most? Let’s go one step further – why does being a therapist sound so miserable and heavy for most? Because the whole job is centered on listening well enough, intently enough, to be able to understand each patient for who they are in order to get to the source of the wound.
According to Stephanie Kirby
When a therapist doesn’t pay attention to your words and nonverbal communications, they decide for themselves what problems you need to address….A therapist who doesn’t listen may make guesses, but they’ll probably be wrong most of the time.
It’s also no wonder nurses and doctors ask so many questions and listen to a patient’s list of issues before giving a diagnosis. Dr. Read Pierce- VP of Strategy and Culture Transformation at the Institute for Healthcare Excellence wrote this in his post on listening in the healthcare industry,
It’s no surprise that people go into medicine to care for others, not simply fix others’ problems.
Pierce emphasized throughout this post that failing to listen is failing to care for a patient well – misdiagnosis, negative side effects, and multiple trips back to the office are all results that could stem from a lack of listening to the needs of the patient. This helped me understand that listening correlates with care, while speaking over and “showing authority” could portray a desire to fix (and won’t always fix it the first time, if at all). Doctors, nurses, therapists- they all have one thing in common; to understand the needs of their patients by hearing, listening, and discerning. Funny how, whether we’re seeing someone to heal and fix our bodies or seeing someone to heal and fix our minds, both professions default to the active skill of listening for highest quality results.
So how do lawyers and bloggers stack up in the rankings of listening and discerning? Well, good thing you asked. I did my homework. When I typed in the same question to google that I did about doctors and therapists, I found alarming results. “Get Better at Listening” “Learning to Listen” “Are We Hearing What They’re Saying?” were among the top results. So what’s the disconnect?
It could be because we were taught to be thorough, to leave no stone unturned in our efforts to persuade. I’m sure some lawyers want to impress people with the depth of their knowledge, the breadth of their experience, or the thoroughness of their research. Some want to display their intelligence. Some want to hide their shortcomings behind a wall of words.
Good food for thought as the legal industry continues to revolutionize to a more human-centered approach. My question of the week will remain “What am I doing to make others feel heard and, better yet, listened to?” When building community, it’s key to keep listening at the forefront. What does this community need? What do the individuals of this community need? What are they telling us and what are they not telling us, that we need to discern? Are we hearing the expertise and the suggestions people are sharing with us? Are there leaders within the community pulling others up and amplifying their voices?
These questions will be what shape our community. What questions will shape your community?