AND Choose to Hear and See

July 31st, 2016

I have been watching intently and listening carefully to the patterns of fear and angst, anger and judgment arising in our organizations, cities neighborhoods, and political arenas. The escalation of discontent and dismissal of others is inescapable.

The labels are quick. Whatever words are chosen, they classify and quickly allow us to stop looking and listening for what lies beyond, the person hidden by the labels. We use the labels to dismiss others who do not speak as we do, believe as we do, look as we do, marry as we do, and live as we do. We don’t see the people behind the uniforms, color of skin, gender, or religious garb. AND it has to stop. We are more than our labels.

Our unconscious expectations of others are nothing more than our need to feel good about ourselves and our own decisions. Self importance is a sign of insecurity and the unwillingness to look inside at our own vulnerabilities and frailness to see the higher version of ourselves that loves and wants to be loved, and that desperately wants to contribute.

Decades ago, as a naïve assistant professor at a public university, I became the only woman department chair on the campus. The former chair told me to dress more feminine. A man who had been hired the day I had been hired a few years earlier quit because he said he would never work for a woman. The provost refused to call me chair when I requested he not use chairman. I didn’t realize then that people did not see me. They saw a woman in a role and had expectations of her.

I headed virtually every major committee on campus at one time or another, during my tenure in the position. Yet, when promoted to associate professor, the male president, overrode my promotion, despite recognized accomplishments in teaching and service by my peers. I kept working hard for the students, unaware of the intractable labels on and expectations of women in what was then a male world of leadership roles.

AND I am not unique. The pattern continues today in all realms of society. I am grateful for what my experiences have taught me about seeing the people behind the roles, listening to what they say and watching who they are through their actions, not through my eyes or expectations.

I listened to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, as she made history this past week, shattering the glass ceiling for women by accepting the nomination for President. AND I changed channels repeatedly, seeking to listen to her and not people who call themselves journalists who judged her against their expectations, without truly being open to hearing what she desperately wanted to share about who she is.

This is not about Hillary as a political figure. What I am writing about is about something much bigger. It is about the woman, African American, Hispanic, Muslim, or any other individual who looks or sounds different from what has come before when accepting a mantle of leadership. We must choose to hear and see the person behind the role, if we are to create an enlightened, wise, and just society for all.

I listened to commentators judge Hillary for not being authentic and sharing more of herself. Regardless your political leanings, do you see this woman, as she sees herself? When she tells us who she is, when she shows us who she is, can we see her? Do we choose to hear her? We throw the word authentic around today as if it is somehow about the truth, when it really reflects our preconceived notions about how a woman, Black person, Hispanic, Muslim, or any other stereotypic label for people should sound and behave.

Maya Angelou said, When people show you who they are, believe them. That means we have to look with clear eyes and listen without bias for what they are trying to show and tell us. Hillary told us, in her acceptance speech, that she loves policy, believes it is her duty to pay attention to the details, would not give up just because one way she worked for families, children, and health care didn’t work, and is committed to continuously learning from those she listens to learn and adjusting her positions to serve the greater good by working with others to accomplish what we collectively believe is best.

When she repeatedly says who she is and others testify to their direct experience of her, why do we listen to commentators who hold her against their personal standard for the story they want to tell and not report the one being told? And why do we choose their interpretation over our own? Because we see what we choose and we hear what we choose. AND when we are insecure and our egos form the screen through which we see the world, anyone who looks or sounds different becomes a threat to the way we want to see ourselves.

When I was in graduate school years ago, we studied social differences in language use. The masculine form of being expert linguistically is to dismiss everything that has come before to make one’s own opinions and research the most powerful. The feminine form is to study all that has come before, credit what can be built on and take the prior thinking to a higher lever through inclusion. Whether used by men or women, in workplaces, or by political speechwriters, these are two different styles of communicating original work and personal choices. We are seeing those very patterns in our political process today. Do we know how to see and hear the person beyond the labels? Are we willing to listen beyond our own biases of what we want to hear to hear what is being said?

If we are going to recognize the gifts and answers to our dreams, we are going to need to ask ourselves:

What do I listen for? And if the answer is anything different from the truth we will not recognize it when we hear it because the truth will probably appear in a package different from what we expect. There is a woman running for President of the United States. Whether you support her politically, will you see the one named Hillary for who she is, what she dreams, and why she cares? AND will you see every other person regardless of gender, age, religious affiliation, race, or other label for who they are?

A famous psychologist once said that the reason we don’t listen to hear is because we would change ourselves, if we did. Hmmm.

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