Why empathetic listening is so important in race conversations

Talking about race is essential if we are going to create a more equitable and just society. Such conversations allow us to communicate our challenges and express our lived experiences. They are also an opportunity to learn more about the experiences of others and to understand the complexities of creating real change.

We’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about how we have these conversations. After all, how we talk about these issues directly influences how well we can bring others with us and create the momentum needed for change.

We’ve talked about phrases we should avoid using and resources to help you guide conversations around racial rights, but knowing how to talk about racial justice is only half the battle. We also need to understand how to listen.

For a skill we (theoretically) use every day, many people aren’t actually very good at listening. They might take turns in conversations, but they use the time when others speak to prepare their following statement. This is not truly listening, and it’s actively harmful in the context of discussions around race.

White people, in particular, need to learn to listen during these conversations. Groups used to having their voices disregarded or silenced need to be heard—those accustomed to being listened to need to make space for this to happen.

You may have heard of “active listening”, but even that falls slightly short of what is needed to facilitate meaningful conversations around race. That’s where empathetic listening comes in.

What is empathetic listening?

Empathetic listening is the next stage beyond active listening. It’s about creating a safe space for the other person to communicate how they are feeling and experiencing the world in such a way that they feel understood and accepted.

Empathetic listening doesn’t mean you agree with everything someone says as an objective fact, but you accept it as a genuine reflection of their feelings and experiences.

When you listen to someone empathetically, you’re building an emotional connection between the two of you and creating a relationship of trust.

You’re actively demonstrating to them that they can be open and vulnerable with you and that you will treat that vulnerability with the care, compassion, and respect it deserves.

One way to think about empathetic listening is to consider the questions you might have during the conversation. In a normal conversation, you might have many questions:

  • What happened next?

  • What led to that?

  • Is this an accurate description?

  • How would I have reacted in that situation?

  • Is this a reasonable or justifiable response?

When you are listening empathetically, there’s only one question:

  • How would that feel?

The challenge is that empathetic listening doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We must put our natural tendencies towards analysis and judgement to one side. This will create the right environment for race conversations, it’s a skill that’s well worth learning.

>>> Read our 2022 Report for statistics on Racial Equity in the Workplace

Why race conversations need empathetic listening

The unique features of empathetic listening allow you to have productive, respectful and empowering conversations around racial equity. It creates an atmosphere of learning and understanding rather than judgement and defensiveness.

Here are some of the ways this works:

Empathetic listening approaches racial topics with respect

By focusing on the experiences of others, without seeking external validation of those experiences, empathetic listening treats the experiences of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups with the respect they deserve.

When we’re asked about our experiences of racism and injustice with empathy, we feel respected enough to elaborate and share our stories. This is particularly important to enable us to hear the backstory to feelings we believe are “overreactions” or possibly inappropriate.

Not having to justify ourselves allows us to give a more thorough and accurate explanation of our lived experiences, which should be a primary goal of all racial conversations.

Empathetic listening requires that we put away preconceptions

We’ve all had conversations where we’ve been sure we know exactly what the other person is about to say. We’ve also all had conversations where the other person has been convinced they know what we’re about to say… and we’ve both been wrong.

Preconceptions are a significant barrier to honest communication, especially about race.

Empathetic listening requires that all parties put aside their preconceptions and listen. It's not interrupting, finishing the other person’s sentences, or asking questions that presuppose a particular answer, all of which result in shutting down the conversation.

Empathetic listening embraces the idea that you can be wrong

When someone does have preconceptions they can’t shed, empathetic listening requires that they approach those ideas in a spirit of uncertainty and enquiry.

When others might ask, ‘Well, yes, but what about…’, an empathetic listener trying to overcome preconceptions might say, ‘I hadn’t understood it that way before. Would you be willing to explain it a little more?’

Empathetic listening is creatively uncomfortable

When we talk about conversations about race, we often talk about not wanting to make people uncomfortable and wanting them to feel safe. Empathetic listening prioritises the need for everyone to feel safe but embraces the idea that it’s okay for the listener to feel uncomfortable sometimes.

Feeling uncomfortable isn’t a bad thing. Change, growth, and development can all be painful. And conversations about racial injustice in society should be uncomfortable.

This is where the non-judgemental character of empathetic listening is vital. It allows us to feel the necessary and appropriate discomfort that we should when confronted by social injustice without feeling blamed, attacked, or judged.

Empathetic listening is the gold standard for conversations around race, but few people consistently achieve it. Moreover, fewer organisations have successfully created a consistent culture promoting this discussion.

At FLAIR, we’re working with our clients and partners to help everyone achieve the gold standard in empathetic listening and all other aspects of racial equity and justice. Get in touch today!

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