Critical Lessons & Educational Change

For Careful Listening

Carolyn Salter

August 2011

“If you and I were to do good alliance work together, to be good allies, I would have to expose my wounds to you and you would have to expose your wounds to me and then we could start from a place of openness-” (Anzaldua, 2000, p. 204).

Anzaldua (2000) highlights that being an ally to others requires openness. The same can be said for dialogue, which requires openness to sharing with others; openness to others’ feelings and experiences that may be quite different than our own; openness to the possibility that our understanding of the world may be inaccurate and incomplete; and openness to change. Practicing this kind of openness is by no means an easy task. It requires engagement, humility, and a special kind of listening—testimonial listening. Testimonial listening is critical listening with a social justice focus that not only involves suspending judgment, perspective-taking, and empathy but also requires one to take into account one’s own and others’ location in systems of privilege and oppression. Ultimately, testimonial listening helps to raise our consciousness and sense of responsibility to others.

When sharing our own story or testimony, or listening to others, it is important that we recognize that much of our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world is directly related to our socialization, beliefs, social location—where we are located in society in relation to norms and how our various identities (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, ability) intersect to impact our experiences and opportunities—and resulting frame of reference. Each person has a unique social location and frame of reference that is, by nature, limited by our experiences. This can sometimes impede our listening or make it difficult for us to imagine and understand someone else’s reality especially if it something we have never encountered or heard about before. When someone shares a story that challenges our worldview, it is important that we resist the temptation to stop listening and that we do not resort to defensiveness or regard hir[1] story as not true. Instead we must engage in the struggle to understand what others’ experience.

“We must keep the perspective that people are experts on their own lives. There are certainly aspects of the outside world of which they may not be aware, but they can be the only authentic chroniclers of their own experience. We must not be too quick to deny their interpretations, or accuse them of ‘false consciousness’” (Delpit, 1988, p. 297).

Further, we must critically reflect on our reaction to another’s story in order to better understand why we feel the way that we do. What is it about another person’s story that makes us uncomfortable, frustrated, guilty, or upset? How does our social location impact our ability to listen to and understand others? What role do norms and our beliefs play in our perception of others? For example, if someone tells a story about experiencing oppression (e.g., racism, heterosexism, sexism, classism) or reveals that ze[2] is a republican or democrat, how does that impact how we listen? Do we listen with the intention of understanding someone who has different experiences or ideals than us or do we listen with the intention of challenging and debating another person’s experiences or beliefs? Do we reflect on our own positioning in systems of privilege and oppression and how that influences our assumptions and perceptions? Are we able to recognize the ways in which we may have supported oppression, the hostile climate another faces, or contributed directly or indirectly to another person’s circumstances? Do we recognize when we act as an oppressor utilizing racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs; exhibit stereotypical assumptions; or fail to interrupt or challenge oppression? Do we recognize the ways in which we participate in our own oppression or the oppression of others with whom we share a social identity? Gaining this kind of critical consciousness is integral to testimonial listening as it helps us to recognize our responsibility in other’s circumstances and stories.

Butler (2005) asserts, “The ‘I’ has no story of its own that is not also the story of a relation—or set of relations—to a set of norms” (p. 9). Our relationship to and interpretation of norms (do we endorse them?, question them?, reject them?, compare others to them?) ultimately impacts how we enact our identity, how we view ourselves, and how we view others. “We do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs” (Delpit, 1988, p.297)—recognizing this is an important part of testimonial listening. It is rare that people stop to consider all of the ways in which their beliefs can interfere with their ability to really listen to and understand others. Testimonial listening calls us to interrogate our assumptions. For instance, how does what we believe is ‘natural’ or ‘right’ impact how we view, listen to, and treat others? How does it impact what we believe is and is not possible? How do our assumptions and beliefs constrain us? How do our assumptions and beliefs impact the sense of responsibility that we feel towards others? Though our frame of reference may be limited, it does not mean that we cannot expand it. Practicing testimonial listening can help us broaden our understanding of others and the world.

In dialogue and in life, we must learn to question our beliefs (where did they originate?; how do they impact how we live our life?; who do they benefit?; how do they impact others?) and seek to remain open to possibilities that are beyond our frame of reference. Testimonial listening requires us to suspend judgment and exhibit perspective-taking and empathy in order to try to understand other people’s experiences especially when they are beyond our frame of reference. To do so, we must “learn to be vulnerable enough to allow our world to turn upside down in order to allow the realities of others to edge themselves into our consciousness” (Delpit, 1998, p. 297). When listening to others we must strive to suspend judgment momentarily or “to hold the judgment very softly, so that we can hear each other” (Weiler, 1994, p. 6). This is can be quite difficult to accomplish—

“To put our beliefs on hold is to cease to exist as ourselves for a moment—and that is not easy. It is painful as well, because it means turning yourself inside out, giving up your own sense of who you are, and being willing to see yourself in the unflattering light of another’s angry gaze. It is not easy, but it is the only way to learn what it might feel like to be someone else and the only way to start the dialogue” (Delpit, 1998, p.297).

This does not mean that we must suspend judgment indefinitely as such appears to be impossible. It does mean however that we must strive to remain open to others and listen long enough to try to understand where they are coming from even if is difficult or frustrating. If we have a dominant social identity we must listen even more intensely to individuals with target identities in order to better understand the ways in which our dominant positioning has limited our perspective and kept us from noticing our unearned privilege and the oppression others experience as a result of it.

If we hold onto our beliefs too tightly, fail to suspend judgment, and do not question our assumptions, we risk jumping to conclusions and misinterpreting or disregarding the experiences of others. This can directly impact the nature of our communication shifting dynamics from open to defensive and from dialogue to debate in which listening to understand others is no longer the focus (Berman, 1993). It is quite easy to rush to judgment especially if we have strong opinions about the subject matter. Given our varying experiences and frames of reference, this can lead to misunderstanding. If we find ourselves in a situation where we are unclear about what another person is communicating, on the verge of jumping to a conclusion, or hurt by what another person says, it is imperative that we seek to clarify meanings by asking questions aimed at fostering more precise understanding such as, can you explain what you meant when you said —-?. By taking this extra step, we can cultivate mutual understanding and reduce the likelihood that we will misinterpret another person’s words or actions.

If done within the framework of testimonial listening, suspending judgment creates an opening for practicing perspective-taking and empathy which fosters the exploration of differences and the deepening of understanding and relationships. Perspective-taking requires mental stretching in which one thinks about what it would be like “to experience things as other persons experience them” (McCormick, 1999, p. 58) while empathy requires emotional stretching as one tries to “experience the same feelings as someone else” (McCormick, 1999, p. 57). It consists of asking the questions—what would I think and how would I feel if I experienced that (McCormick, 1999)? In answering these questions testimonial listeners commit themselves to also considering the social forces that influence another person’s experiences. As Boler (1997) explains, “As we hear about and witness horrors, what call for recognition is not ‘me’ and the possibility of my misfortune, but a recognition of power relations that defines the interaction” (p. 262) and the relationship between the speaker and the listener; the speaker and the situation encountered; and the listener and the situation the speaker encountered. Thus, emphasis is not placed on our fear of encountering the same difficulties or pity for the other but rather on critically reflecting on the power relations that influence our listening, reaction, judgments, and sense of responsibility (Boler, 1997).

When practicing perspective-taking and empathy, it is important to recognize that we will never be able to completely understand or feel the same as others due to our different social locations and frames of reference. While analogies or comparisons of others’ situations to our own experiences (e.g., comparing experiences of racism to sexism or classism to heterosexism) can be helpful for empathizing and bridging differences, we must be cautious as they can also act to shift the focus off of others and their stories back to ourselves. This centering of ourselves can impede dialogue and impact the nature of our listening. Comparisons of this nature are dangerous as they can reinforce essentialism (the notion that there is set of characteristics or experience that all people with that identity share independent from their other social identities) and act to minimize or annihilate the significance of our different identities, experiences, and locations in systems of power (Boler, 1997; Grillo & Wildman, 1996). As Grillo and Wildman (1996) explain:

“The ‘analogizer’ often believes that her situation is the same as another’s. Nothing in the comparison process challenges this belief and the analogizer may think she understands the other’s situation in its fullness. The analogy makes the analogizer forget the difference and allows her to stay focused on her own situation without grappling with the other person’s reality” (Grillo & Wildman, 1996, p 65).

This explanation highlights an important aspect of testimonial listening—the need to stay centered on others and grapple with their realities. Individuals who remain focused on  their own vulnerabilities or claim to completely understand how another person feels because they fear it could happen to themselves position “the ‘other’ as the secondary object of concern” (Boler, 1997, p. 257) while centering themselves as the primary object of concern rather than the task of understanding another person’s circumstances.

Testimonial listening requires us to shift the focus off of ourselves. It calls us to no longer sit back at a safe distance and simply listen but instead to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to others and their stories. In our listening, we must seek to locate our complicity in systems of power, the ways we participate in our own oppression and the oppression of others, and our responsibility in the circumstances others encounter (Boler, 1997).

“To take responsibility is to firmly situate ourselves within contingent and imperfect contexts, to acknowledge differential privileges of race, gender, geographic location, and sexual identities, and to resist the delusionary and dangerous recurrent hope of redemption to a world not of our own making” (Flax,1992, p. 460).

“What is at stake is not only the ability to empathize with the very distant other, but to recognize oneself as implicated in the social forces that create the climate of obstacles the other must confront” (Boler, 1997, p. 257). We must recognize that no one is innocent as “none of us live as fully self-sufficient, autonomous beings; we are implicated in the lives of others not only at the beginning and end of our lives, but all throughout them” (Thiem, 2008, p. 225). Despite our good intentions, we are responsible for the circumstances of others and we must confront the emotion that comes with this awareness—the guilt, anger, frustration, and blame—and learn to focus our attention on our responsibility and the ways in which we can act as allies in more just and equitable ways.

Testimonial listening requires us to accept “a commitment to rethink… assumptions and to confront the internal obstacles encountered as one’s views are challenged” (Boler, 1997, p. 262) for it is when we are pushed to and beyond the limits of our comfort zone that we are often in the best position to grow and learn and expand our frame of reference. This is not easy or comfortable. It requires self-reflective engagement with others—a critical awareness of our positioning in systems of power; a recognition of others’ experiences; and a willingness to have our views challenged and to change because of this. It by nature implicates us, the listener—calling us to shift from understanding experiences as individual-level, isolated events to institutional-level patterns and relations of power in order to also locate the social structures and systems that mediate experience.

People impacted by oppression, want justice, not our empathy (Boler, 1997). Testimonial listening highlights this social responsibility. It requires that we be open and vulnerable, get close to others’ stories, locate ourselves in their circumstances, allow ourselves to be changed by their words, and to take responsibility. Although we will never completely understand what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, if we are open to their story, able to suspend judgment, and practice testimonial listening we may come to understand the texture of the terrain that person encounters daily. With this knowledge and our broadened frame of reference, we can act as allies and work to make the terrain more even.


[1] Hir is a gender neutral pronoun for her/his.

[2] Ze is a gender neutral pronoun for she/he


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