January 21, 2019

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

That powerful quote has almost become synonymous with the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day—and it makes sense why. It’s a moving warning of the dangers of being silent and complacent in the face of injustices around us.

There’s a nuance in that quote that we often forget to think about when we talk about doing the right thing. It’s the difference between the kind of silence when you say nothing at all, and the kind of silence that comes with actively listening to someone else. That second kind of silence—the kind that involves listening—is a radical act, and it's a simple way we can start to break down systemic barriers around us.

Listening is a radical act and a simple way we can start to break down systemic barriers around us.
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Radically listening takes what you know about listening and goes one step further. It means dismantling the filters you typically have on when you listen to someone—from questioning to judging—and it means offering a space to let someone express their story wholly, without interruption. It's trusting someone and letting them own their knowledge and experience.

Research shows that it’s worth it for many reasons. A 2018 study revealed that when we take time to listen in an empathetic way, the speakers are impacted in a positive manner—and the listener walks away with a more holistic understanding of the situation, not just a one-sided view.

Imagine if everyone did the silent but powerful work to truly listen.

When we radically listen to women, we have a better understanding of how to support policies that provide health care and other resources to women.

When we radically listen to those differently abled than us, we have a better understanding of how to fight for disability rights.

When we radically listen to transgender women of color, who are disproportionately affected by violence, we’re able to better fight for the protection of LGBTQ rights.

Imagine if everyone did the silent but powerful work to truly listen.
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Sometimes, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are some ways you can begin radically listening to your community to create a better future for everyone.

No ‘Buts’ About It

One tenet of radical listening is the elimination of the word “but.” It’s easy to interject with a “but” to insert our opinion when we're in conversation with someone. Instead, resist the urge to interrupt until that person is done speaking.

No Judgement Zone

Radical listening is only successful if you do the work to check yourself. When you’re listening to others, make sure you’re making a conscious effort to put a pause on those filters—like that "But someone else told me..." or "For me, it's not the case..." that may creep up in your thoughts. Try your best to remove any judgement or expectations.

Ask Questions

Radically listening to someone doesn’t mean that you have to remain completely silent and consume a conversation like, well, a podcast. It also means engaging in a deeper way.

Take time to think of thoughtful follow-up questions, and also ask questions to make sure you're understanding someone's perspective correctly (that’s called "reflective listening"). Your responses should make the person feel heard.

Listening Doesn’t Just Have to be Face-To-Face

If you don’t have opportunities to radical listen IRL, there are ways you can listen URL.

One way to start is to expand who appears on your social media timelines. Give space to marginalized voices on your Twitter, and follow activists who are using their accounts to share their learnings, perspective, and information. Here are some recommendations to get you started.

Following people you agree with is great, but following people that challenge your worldview and give you a chance to shift it is important, too. Find a balance that works for you.

Following people you agree with is great, but following people that challenge your worldview and give you a chance to shift it is important, too.
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Move Beyond the Double Tap

Once you’ve revamped your social filters on Instagram and other accounts, don’t just double tap and move on. Use your platform to amplify the voices that you follow by sharing them within your own circle.

As unfortunate as it may be, the Internet is a segregated place—with information and discussions often times being siloed depending on the intersection of identities you carry. Breaking down that segregation starts with listening, and continues with amplifying the voices of those you learn from.

Know Your Limits

As Sarah Hempstock and Soofiya Andry wrote in Strike! magazine": “Radical listening is as much an act of self-love as it is an act of expressing love for others.”

Set boundaries for yourself, and don’t be afraid to embrace what they call the "freedom of listening." If something is harming you, or taking an emotional toll, protect your energy and don’t be afraid to turn away.

Give Yourself Time

Radically listening to someone might not be the most natural or easiest thing. Give yourself time to reflect after a conversation and find moments you can improve upon, and moments of breakthrough.

Radically listening takes a level of unlearning—and lots of practice.
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Radically listening takes a level of unlearning—and lots of practice. But when we do the work to make space for others, you'll start learning and empathizing in ways that build connections across differences—and that’s pretty powerful.


Read next: 10 Ways to Be a Better Speaker and Listener

Get Inspired By the Past

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Listen to a meditation voiced by activist Rachel Cargle to hone and celebrate the power of radical listening.

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