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