You know that Black Lives Matter, and you want to be an effective ally. The first step is counter-intuitive: more listening.
Authentic allyship includes empathy and compassion toward the Black community, people of color (POC), and other marginalized groups. Allyship includes self-education, anti-racist commitment, and non-self-centered efforts toward change.
Allyship means amplifying Black and POC voices, supporting the Black community in their actions, and trusting their expertise about racial inequality and injustice.
Even the most well-meaning non-POC individuals can dampen the efforts of the Black community by speaking over Black voices, making assumptions about what changes should or shouldn’t be made, or invalidating statements by POC about their lived experience.
Being an ally requires us to not center the conversation around ourselves. Black people are the experts on the lived Black experience. To be a better ally, we need to listen, amplify, and validate Black voices. And listening comes first.
1. Active Listening
“Active listening” was described by psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard E. Farson in the 1950s, and the influence behind this term runs strong today. Active listening serves to strengthen our social ties, forge deeper connections, and make us feel less alone. And it especially empowers us to be better allies. So how do you do it?
To begin with, practice saying less when listening. It sounds obvious, but it’s harder than you’d think. We often want to talk, to relate experiences to ourselves, and to direct conversations. It takes effort to truly just listen, but your conversational partner will surely appreciate it. Plus, when you focus more on hearing what they’re saying and less on thinking about what you’re going to say, you can make sure 100% of your attention is on them.
Next, you’ll want to periodically validate what they’re saying. In active listening, the listener validates the partner’s feelings rather than the situation itself. Even if you disagree with the person’s thoughts or actions, you can still understand why they might feel or think that way.
When you do talk, use the summarize method. Paraphrase what they told you so that they know they’re being heard and understood. Remember to ask for corrections in case you’re not fully understanding them.
This three-step technique of hearing, validating, and summarizing keeps the focus on the conversation partner, allowing them to express themselves in a supportive and understanding environment.
Accordingly, you’ll want to avoid spreading into areas that can come across as judgmental, directive, or invalidating. We have a few tricks for that, too.
4. Asking Questions
When asking questions, focus on feelings, not facts. Avoid “why” questions; instead use “how” or “what” questions.
Asking people “why” puts pressure on them to justify their own feelings and experiences. “Why” questions make your conversational partner defensive rather than expressive. Asking more exploratory questions (how/what) rather than demanding questions (why) will provide a comfortable environment for them to express themselves how they want to, at their own pace.
Lastly, remember that they are the expert on their own feelings. They are usually not opening up to you to be told what to do or how to feel; they are opening up to you to be heard and understood. As such, avoid giving advice, making judgments, or trying to change the way they feel.
Avoiding judgment, advice, and reinterpretation is difficult. You’ll likely see things in a different light than your conversational partner, and it’s natural to want to express that perspective. But remember that you’re hearing only a part of the puzzle; they’re living it. You’re here to listen, not tell.
Remember that it takes time and effort to be a better listener and ally, and give yourself the patience and understanding that you’re working to provide to others.
Black and POC individuals are the experts on what it’s like to experience racial inequality and injustice. Allies must hear, validate, and amplify Black voices — not challenge them. Allies must ensure they understand what the Black community is saying. Use the techniques in this article for active listening, validating, and summarizing to make sure you are truly hearing Black voices. And, if you hear other information from the Black community about how to be a better listener, listen to that.