It’s Time to Listen

Margaret Wheatley discusses how to heal in the months following the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Margaret Wheatley
1 January 2002

You are reading this in December, but I have written this just a few days after September 11. I am trying to imagine what the world feels like two months later-what else might have happened, what has changed, how each of us feels, whether we are more divided or more connected.

In the absence of a crystal ball, I look to the things I believe to be true in all times and for most situations. And so I’ve chosen to write about an enduring truth: great healing is available when we listen to each other. No matter what we have experienced in life, if we can tell our story to someone who listens, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances.

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present (and that takes practice), but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise or coach or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen, and if we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available.

A young black South African woman taught some of my friends a profound lesson about listening. She was sitting in a circle of women from many nations, and each woman had the chance to tell a story from her life. When her turn came, she began quietly to tell a story of true horror-of how she had found her grandparents slaughtered in their village. Many of the women were Westerners, and in the presence of such pain, they instinctively wanted to do something. They wanted to fix it, to make it better, to do anything to remove the pain of this tragedy from such a young life. The young woman felt their compassion, but also felt them closing in. She put her hands up, as if to push back their desire to help. She said: “I don’t need you to fix me. I just need you to listen to me.”

Many women that day learned that being listened to is often enough. If we can speak our story, and know that others hear it, we are somehow healed by that. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa, many of those who testified to the atrocities they had endured under apartheid spoke of being healed by giving testimony. One young man who had been blinded when a policeman shot him in the face at close range said: “I feel what has brought my eyesight back is to come here and tell the story. I feel what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn’t tell my story.”

Why is being heard so healing? I don’t know the full answer to that question, but I do know it has something to do with the fact that listening creates a relationship. We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity. Everything takes form from relationships, be it subatomic particles sharing energy or ecosystems sharing resources.

In the web of life, nothing is alone. Our natural state is to be together. Though we keep moving away from each other, we never lose the need to be in relationship. Everybody has a story, and everybody wants to tell their story in order to connect. In English, the word for “health” comes from the same root as the word for “whole,” which comes from the same root as “holy.” We can’t be healthy if we’re not in relationship, a part of the whole.

Listening moves us closer; it helps us become more whole, more healthy, more holy. Not listening creates fragmentation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes the current era as a time of “radical brokenness” in all our relationships. Everywhere we look in the global family we see disconnection and fear of one another. How many teenagers today, in how many places throughout the world, say that no one listens to them? They feel ignored and discounted, and in their pain they turn to each other to create their own subcultures. I’ve heard two great teachers, Malidoma Somé from Burkino Faso in West Africa, and Parker Palmer from the United States, both comment that a culture is in trouble when you see its elders walk across the street to avoid meeting its youth.

This is an increasingly noisy era-people shout at each other in print, at work, on TV. The volume is directly related to our need to be listened to. People are literally clamoring for attention, and they’ll do whatever it takes to be noticed. Things will only get louder until we figure out how to sit down and listen. Most of us would welcome things quieting down. We can do our part to begin lowering the volume by cultivating our willingness to listen.

Think about whom you might approach-someone you don’t know, don’t like or whose manner of living is a mystery to you. What would it take to begin a conversation with that person? Would you be able to ask them for their opinion or explanation and then sit quietly to listen to their answer? Could you keep yourself from arguing or defending or saying anything for a while? Could you encourage them to just keep telling you their version of things, their side of the story?

It takes courage to begin this type of conversation. But listening, rather than arguing, is also much easier. Once I’d practiced this new role a few times, I found it quite enjoyable. And I learned things I never would have known had I interrupted or advised. I know now that neither I nor the world changes from my well-reasoned, passionately-presented arguments. Things change when I’ve created just the slightest movement toward wholeness, moving closer to another through patient, willing listening.

Margaret Wheatley

Margaret Wheatley

Margaret Wheatley is the author of Leadership and the New Science and co-author of A Simpler Way. She is the president of the Berkana Institute, a non-profit foundation supporting the discovery of new organizational forms.