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The power of listening (over judgment)

As the dust settles from what is being interpreted by many to be a bombshell of an election, there has been no shortage of responses, spanning from intuitive to intellectual to hypothetical to irrational. We've witnessed blame and compassion; fear and confidence; isolation and unity. Perhaps, the one thing we all have in common, despite our beliefs or feelings, is the overwhelming sensation of, "Now, what?"

Well, the simple answer is be kind and curious, listen, and be mindful of our impact. Not all Trump supporters are racist, homophobic, or xenophobic. Not all Hillary supporters are women, bleeding heart liberals, or man-haters. No all Bernie supporters are naive Mellenials or folks who never left their parents' basement. Again, there is commonality between these groups. They all wonted change. Many of them were/are afraid. Fear is a strong motivator. It steers us from harm, but also evokes harmful reactions when left unchecked. Change is absolutely necessary, but change in and of itself is simply difference (neither positive nor negative). Most of us would likely prefer a purposeful and healthy direction within change. Our first step, and perhaps where we've all failed the most as a society, is listening to understand rather than defend; creating an environment where change isn't associated with winning or picking teams, as if we're teeing up for the championship.

How can we create change, if we don't foster an environment in which it's safe to voice our opinions and be challenged in a compassionate and kind-hearted way? If we're afraid of being judged or marginalized for a differing opinion, or being lumped in with a fundamentalist belief group, we remain quiet. When we remain quiet, we don't get to engage with others about our thoughts/beliefs. When we don't engage with others, we remain isolated. When we remain isolated, we are uninformed, misinformed, and unchallenged in what could be skewed perception. We invite resentment and grooming of fear. We lack validation and connection.

Our main objective is, and needs to remain, connection. The more we polarize, the more we focus on our differences. If we look at brain scans and psychological studies, the differences between us, whether gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or nationality, is so small. It's lived experiences that makes us unique. When we consider this notion of lived experience, we are drawn to acknowledge that mine is different than yours, and leads me to perceive through a slightly different lens. Those with similar lived experiences may view themselves and the world through a similar lens.

Let's be curious about each other: our differences and our similarities. This curiosity allows us to explore without expectation, judgment, or shame. It allows us to better understand how and why we and others make the choices we make. It also allows us to get cozy with the experience of discomfort, rather than getting away from it, or making it go away, at any cost to ourselves or others. If we're curious, we can better listen with intent to understand over intent to defend.

When we can come together to create an environment of mutual respect and curiosity, we learn, we grow, we tolerate that which is different. As we all know, fear is rooted in the unknown. What some may not have considered, is that fear is an existential experience of an assumed or anticipated future outcome. When we're in the presence of a snake, why are some of us afraid? We are scared, because of generalizations about snakes and what we think that snake might do to us. We don't have all the information. When I was a child, I was taught to fear snakes, all snakes. I knew not all snakes were venomous, but was encouraged to never get close enough to find out, or I may get bitten. Well, there is certainly some rational logic in that statement. If I walk up on a snake, and invade its space, there is a possibility the snake will react by biting me. I violated its safe space, ignoring cues that it feels threatened, and suffered a consequence of a bite, before learning anything else about it. I could easily blame the snake for biting me, and from that point forward, assume that all snakes are bad and aggressive. Or, I can take a different approach - slow down and grow my awareness. As my awareness grows, I have more information with which to make a choice. I'm not moving quickly, and intimidating the snake. Instead, I'm acknowledging my fear, staying present with a safe distance, and paying attention. When I learn more about the snake, and respect it's perspective (a giant thing with unknown intentions in in its space), perhaps, I escape the painful clinches of its bite. I've just learned something about this snake, and my generalized bias is challenged. If all snakes are bad because they bite, what do I think of this one that didn't? I don't have to like the snake, but I've just planted the seed that may allow me to replace fear with awareness.

If you watch news media, you have certainly heard that many people voted from a place of fear. Well, that's no groundbreaking secret. This concept was conceived a long time ago. Since I can remember, folks have discussed voting against a candidate more than confidently voting for him/her. As I illustrated in the above snake metaphor, fear is powerful and clouding. Knowledge and awareness are more powerful. Largely, fear and disgust put Mr. Trump in the White House, and it's fear and disgust that motivate many protests against him. People throughout the spectrum of political alliance are afraid, and are acting on this fear. We have to be careful, now more than ever, to not alow this fear to further polarize us as a united people. If anything, this is an opportunity for all of us to learn a little more about each other. Why did you vote for Trump? Why did you vote for Hilary? Why did you vote third party, or not at all?

The peaceful protests in response to our new president-elect are a wonderful example of what works in this country. People are welcome, and even invited, to voice their beliefs and opinions. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed it was the peaceful protests that would make the example, set the precedent for expectation, and drive home the point of equality and compassion for fellow human beings. The violence and vandalism in reaction to fear only overshadow the real message. Perhaps, we can make the system work for us, rather than against us, by uniting, by listening, and by learning. This country was founded on the principles of protesting powerful leadership that threatened the freedom and liberties of the commoners who live outside of wealth and power.

When someone is afraid to speak out, due to fear of persecution or violence, they learn to adapt with the resources available to them. This adaptation may look like staying quiet, powerfully reacting, or growing skeptical and resentful. Likewise, one's fear to speak his/her voice can lead to feeling judged and shamed with a label of prejudice, also potentially leading to further isolation and failure to learn valuable information. What brews in the place of learning is intolerance, hatred, and judgment. Growth takes place within the space of vulnerability, and leads to strength. People learn when they allow themselves to be vulnerable. For the most part, people allow themselves to be vulnerable when they feel safe in doing so. The longer we walk around with guarded and fragile egos, the less we learn about each other.

First learning about my privilege as a Caucasian man in the U.S.A. was not an easy pill to swallow, especially when it was never challenged during my childhood, and initially met with aggressive shaming, rather than enlightenment. My friend group was diverse, and I chose to see people as equal. Privilege and prejudice were other people's traits, not mine. I remember initially feeling the urge to resist this notion that I may not have had it all figured out. I knew I could align with the plenty of folks who would willingly support and validate my denial out of fear of what they, too, would find in the metaphorical mirror. As I grew older, and had my own lived experiences, it became more evident to me that my reality wasn't universal. My struggles looked different than some of my peers. My resistance was birthed in shame and fear of being lumped into a group of supremacists, with whom I didn't identify, or even tolerate. There is no more humbling and sobering experience than being the only "white dude" after dark in a neighborhood characterized by violent gang activity. However, these experiences were crucially enlightening, as I truly learned about people I was employed to assist and serve. Fear could have easily kept me away from those invaluable interactions, and not many would have blamed me. In those very moments, with people others feared and judgmentally made assumptions about, I learned to listen, to show up with authenticity and compassion, and to give myself permission to have the experience in the first place.

As social workers, our role is to empower and advocate, not just people like us, or those identified as disenfranchised or marginalized, but everyone. Our clients and caseloads are representative of many walks of life, included people who are both for and against values supported by our pending national administration. Their fears, stresses, and emotional reactions are all part of their realities. If their seeing us for support, these experiences have likely been deemed problematic in some way, or at least uncomfortable. Now is a time we must reflect on our clinical training; separate our own biases and intentions from those of our clients, so not to project.

To best help those struggling with the recent election results, our primary role is to listen - to provide a safe space for them to have a voice. Much of what is happening in our country is a result of various groups of people feeling invalidated and that their voices have not been heard. To give them an attuned ear and validating gesture is a fundamental and powerful resource we must offer. Unfortunately, it's so fundamental, that it often gets overlooked in effort to resoundingly affect change in some groundbreaking manner. In this time, in this place, let us come back to the basics. Validate your clients' experiences as their own unique truths. We can challenge faulty thinking that breeds "isms" only when they feel safe in the presence of challenge. Compassionate challenge to shift perception needs to be unteathered from judgment. Lean into your own discomforts, allowing yourself to be connected with your clients. Model safe vulnerability and healthy expression of fears. Explore personal and global truths. Be a guide for grounding and self-regulation. And, most of all, empathize with their position, in order to create space for a genuine and authentic interaction.

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