We want to feel seen and heard – it’s a basic human desire. However, we can forget that just as much as we want that, so do many others we interact with daily. This desire can particularly apply to folks historically excluded from even contemplating the idea that their feelings are as valid as the rest.
Centering ourselves means that when faced with the opportunity to listen to someone else’s experience, we interrupt the conversation by focusing on our own. We take the energy that was supposed to be spent on truly listening and pour it into making it known that your privilege or discomfort within the situation is more critical.
This is why we must practice active and empathic listening. To many, it’s such a simple concept, but how we listen to others informs our responses which informs how we make them feel. We must listen to understand rather than respond.
When we’re faced with someone sharing their experience, we should actively practice creating a space in which the person feels comfortable continuing to share if they so choose to. Sometimes, even asking questions that you think to signal curiosity can indicate you were too busy thinking of the next question instead of truly listening.
For example; when someone is telling you a story about their upbringing and how that’s shaped their life, try saying something like, “It seems like this part of your life is something you still carry with you,” as opposed to something like “Was your favorite part ‘X’?” The main reason is that when you listen closely and respond with a statement that starts with “It seems like…” or “It sounds like…,” you often allow the other person to open up more and talk about what they choose to talk about, rather than putting the focus on the question or topic you thought about as they were speaking.
Centering ourselves also happens when we’re uncomfortable and, unfortunately, contributes to the erasure of peoples’ experiences. The movements and conversations we’re seeing in our world are for the betterment of people and their communities – it’s not about making those who are privileged look like good people. While we all face our battles, we must show up fully when we decide to advocate for others.
A pause and some quick reflection can most times help us decenter ourselves. Note: the honest answers aren’t always the easiest ones. Here are a few questions we can ask before contributing to a conversation:
- Who is this for? Who does this help?
- Am I searching for someone to console me?
- Am I sharing my experience to indicate how others should feel?
We have to do the work to recognize when our perspective is causing more harm than good. Let’s be okay with taking pauses and responsibility for how we show up in conversations that could ultimately change our world.