I’m part of a group dedicated to educating ourselves on racism and supporting one another in taking action. In each session, we deepen these newly-formed bonds of friendship through a process of story sharing. Last week, one woman shared a story about the power of listening.
It was the mid-1990’s and Casey was flying back to Portland from Denver after attending a public health conference. She got settled in her seat and pulled out her voter’s pamphlet to prepare for the upcoming election. She noticed the man sitting next to her was studying the same document, so she struck up a conversation. As it turned out, the man worked for the State of Oregon. Casey shared she was in public health and worked with the State of Oregon on a number of issues. She commented on the large number of measures on the Oregon ballot that year to which he agreed. “For instance, look at Measure 13 (which would revoke rights for LBGTQ+ individuals). Why would anyone vote for that?”
There was a long silence. Then the man replied, “Actually I’m planning to vote yes for that measure.”
My friend could have retreated into silence. Or asked the stewardess to move her to a different seat. Or she could have just focused on the voters pamphlet. Instead, she chose courage. She turned to the man and asked if he’d be willing to have a conversation about the issue, because she really wanted to understand. He agreed and, during the two and a half hour flight, they talked about his concerns with Measure 13.
She asked questions and listened deeply to what he had to say, clarifying any misunderstandings to make sure he felt heard. He asked her a few questions as well, but mostly the conversation centered on him and what he thought, his fears and what led him to his conclusions about the measure. He was concerned for his kids in school. Casey had been a school nurse and was able to share her experience.
As they approached the Portland Airport, she turned to him, “I’ve never had this kind of conversation in a plane with a stranger who was willing to have such a heartfelt discussion. I appreciate your candor in sharing your concerns. It’s been a privilege. Thank you!”
He replied, “No, thank you. And just so you know, I’m not voting for Measure 13.”
I’m currently reading Howard Zinn’s autobiography, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. He talks about the source of his optimism: the countless courageous acts of everyday people. You never know what will happen when you stand up. You never know what one conversation will spark. But when ordinary people summon the courage to act, things start to change. And sometimes the most courageous act is to listen.
What is your experience with listening and being heard? I’d love to hear your story.