In 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (a central figure of the Baha’i Faith) visited America and noted how ministers or other speakers would prepare sermons or speeches ahead of time and then deliver them to their audiences. Wondering how speakers could know what to say or how to touch the hearts of their listeners without first looking into their eyes, he often advised that we should first listen when teaching or discussing spiritual matters with anyone. Once the other person unburdened his or her soul, they may then be receptive to hearing what one has to offer. Listening also allows someone to know how to respond appropriately to his hearer and, ultimately, how to connect hearts and souls.
As a college instructor, I would not be so reckless as to walk into a lecture completely unprepared, trusting that I would know what to say simply by looking into my students’ eyes. The principle of listening first, however, still applies, whereby I try to understand what students know or don’t know and then determine how to best proceed. On an individual level, we can all remember times when not listening to a spouse, friend, family member, or co-worker led to a misunderstanding, argument, or worse. Simply taking the time to listen can be more valuable than delivering the best-prepared remarks!
Listening first is crucial to our unity and progress as a nation in two particular areas: race relations and politics. The voices of people of color have not been listened to for a very long time. Many in our society, myself included, have recently come to realize the value of simply listening to the story of another human being. Hearing a personal story of someone’s sufferings, triumphs, pain, and joy can soften even the most callous of hearts, open our eyes to the realities of our brothers and sisters, and bind our hearts in a shared sense of humanity.
Racism is America’s most vital and challenging issue--without listening first, there can be no understanding, no thoughtful discourse, and no remedies. During that same 1912 visit, 'Abdu’l-Bahá addressed both the black and white people of America, saying, “Let neither think that the solution of so vast a problem is a matter that exclusively concerns the other. Let neither think that such a problem can either easily or immediately be resolved.
"Each one should endeavor to develop and assist the other toward mutual advancement. Love and unity will be fostered between you, thereby bringing about the oneness of mankind.” (For a current statement to the American people on this issue from the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly, see: https://sites.google.com/bahai.us/race-unity-action)
In the realm of political discourse, listening first (or at all) has become rare. Those of similar partisan leanings reinforce their own views and isolate themselves from any contrary views, thereby greatly reducing opportunities for true discourse. The Universal House of Justice (governing body of the Baha’i Faith) noted the relationship between these divided, narrowly focused modes of communication and the well-being of society, stating, “One conspicuous symptom of society’s deepening malaise is the steady descent of public discourse into greater rancor and enmity, reflecting entrenched partisan points of view.”
Think how different our society would be if everyone listened first and genuinely tried to understand each other's views! We could find solutions that are better for everyone and discard those entrenched positions that limit our progress toward justice and unity.
On a personal level, I have found that a renewed focus on simply listening has strengthened my relationships with my family and propelled many acquaintances into friends, building trust, love, and unity along the way.
Joe Fradella is a senior instructor in civil and construction engineering at Oregon State University and lives in Albany with his two children. He is an active member of the local Baha’i community.
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