Journey of Understanding (GWTW414)

I start today’s episode of Getting Work To Work without the usual introduction and with a few questions: What do I say when I don’t know what to say? What can I say that hasn’t already been said? How can I use my voice and platform for good?

To say the answers to these questions are complicated is an understatement. I feel powerless to affect change, let alone understand the depth of the problems before us all. But it is moments like this where silence is not the answer. I need to speak up and express my own journey of understanding with the hope that it inspires others to join me on this path of engagement with myself and others.

Since the founding of this podcast four years ago, I worked to create a weekly show that helped people get their work to work. I wanted to create a show that educated creative professionals and encouraged hope. By sharing my experiences, what I was learning, and trying to be a positive force in the world—along with interviewing a diverse group of creative professionals around the world—this show has had a tremendous impact on how I look at the world.

But underneath this desire to help people get their work to work is the reality that work doesn’t work for a lot of people based upon the color of their skin, the gender they identify as, who they love, the god they serve, the absence of religious belief, where they’re from, and where they live. Getting your work to work is complicated beyond measure; it is messy and political. It’s so much more than a clever title of a weekly podcast. It is a fundamental part of understanding ourselves in relationship with others.

I will never know fear because of the color of my skin. I will never experience the depth of inequity because of my gender. I am not discriminated against because of who I love and what I believe. And these realities disturb me to my core. I don’t want any child to fear for their lives because of where they were born, the color of their skin, the gender they were born with, and the gender they ultimately choose. I want everyone to have what I have. I want women to make as much as I do. I want everyone to love whomever they decide. These desires do not threaten me or my beliefs. What they do reveal, though, is how much I’ve taken for granted, how lazy I’ve been, and how much work is before me.

Twenty years ago, my mission was to change the world. On top of that statement, I actually believed I could change the world. But if you asked me then what exactly I wanted to change, I didn’t have a clue. I thought I had experienced everything, when in reality, it was close to nothing. I had no understanding of the world, just the bubble in which I lived and worked. I knew nothing of the problems people faced and naively thought that what I struggled with was universal.

It ultimately didn’t matter that I lacked an understanding of the problems or the solutions, I truly believed as long as I proclaimed, “I’m going to change the world,” I was doing the work of changing the world.

I’m not sure who revealed my ignorance, I know a lot of people tried, but I did eventually wake up and embark on a journey of understanding my limitations and overcoming my arrogance.

This journey transformed my mission from changing the world to wanting to be a positive influence on those around me, so that together we could impact the world. And that’s where I find myself today, on a journey of understanding through the acts of listening, learning, thinking, acting, reflecting, and repeating this process.

Step 1: Listen

One of the popular phrases on social media right now is “muted and listening.” This is a fantastic sentiment, assuming that we agree upon what listening means and who we are choosing to listen to.

As an interviewer, listening is a critical skill. But I would argue listening is a critical human skill everyone needs to develop on a daily basis. Before we can listen, however, we need to understand that how we listen is shaped by our agenda. Are we listening to confirm what we already know and believe or are we listening to challenge and confront? Do we listen to understand and empathize? Or are we waiting to show our superiority? What is the agenda of the person I’m listening to? Taking the time to understand and share agendas is the first step in listening.

But listening only grows from there. An important book in my journey of listening has been Co-Active Coaching, in which the authors describe three levels of listening, two of which are relevant in this context. The first level is called Internal Listening and is where most people start and end. As the authors write, “our awareness is on ourselves. We listen to the words of the other person, but our attention is on what it means to us personally.”

This is an important level of listening, as we not only listen to the voices of others, but listen to how we are responding inside. Is what we hear making us uncomfortable? Angry? Joyful? Sorrowful? Identifying what you are feeling is an incredible function of listening at the first level, but it should never end there.

Because effective listening is about getting over ourselves and engaging with others. The authors of Co-Active Coaching call this second level, Focused Listening: “You listen for their words, their expressions, their emotions, everything they bring. You notice what they say, how they say it. You notice what they don’t say.”

I think a lot of us fear listening because we are afraid of what we will hear and how we’ll have to respond. What if I’m inadequate? What if I say the wrong thing? In the words of Level II Focused Listening, it’s not about you. It’s about the other person.

Whether you are engaging in first- or second-level listening, learning to listen requires you to separate what you know and believe from what someone else is expressing. It requires you to potentially sit in your own discomfort, to care about the other person in front of you, and seek to understand.

In a lot of scenarios, listening is everything and defines whether we succeed or fail in connecting with people. However, we don’t stop at listening because it informs everything else on the journey of understanding.

Step 2: Learn

If we are truly listening and paying attention, we eventually come upon gaps in our understanding that will require new knowledge. And the question becomes, “How do we do that?” As Ibram X. Kendi writes in How to Be an Antiracist: “How we frame the problem—and who we frame as the problem—shapes the answers we find.”

How we frame problems is everything because we live in a golden age of education where we have an unlimited supply of teachers and information at our fingertips. We can find answers to every question at the press of a button. We can go to YouTube and learn any skill imaginable. We can explore college courses for free. Everything is knowable, and in this environment, everyone can be a teacher.

But there is more to teaching than just sharing what we know and adding content to the infinite digital classroom. The best teachers provoke us to stop, listen, think, engage, and respond with thoughtful and timely action. They challenge what we know, reveal what we don’t know, and show us a future beyond anything we could ever imagine. They care for us. They make it safe to question and wonder.

Even though we can learn anything from anyone, learning is difficult because it involves correction. And no one likes to be corrected. Transformational learning requires us to be wrong, to wrestle with uncertainty, to critically think about what we’re exposed to, to challenge what we know, face our own ignorance, and move toward an unknown and uncertain future with hope.

Step 3: Think

The next stop on the journey of understanding is to think. Salacious headlines, click-bait articles, algorithmically-curated content, sound bites, and extreme viewpoints seem to bypass our brains and head straight to our feelings. Instead of taking a moment or two to think, we grab ahold of our audience and emotionally vomit all over them with whatever is in our gut or on the tip of our tongue. This is not a great long-term strategy for success on the journey of understanding.

If our goal is to embrace the power of our mind and lessen the grip emotions have over our communication skills, what role does thinking play in this?

First and foremost, thinking slows us down. It gives us time to ask questions, to be skeptical, and to seek out cause and effect. When we slow down, we can explore complex topics and issues beyond the surface-level that is presented to us. We can get our emotions in-check and engage our brain by asking ourselves: Is this true? If so, how is this true? What is not being communicated? How badly do I want to believe this?

Second, thinking reveals our ignorance and bias, thus creating the need for a cyclical process of asking questions, listening, learning, and thinking. I used to be afraid of admitting that I didn’t know something, especially in the classroom. I was the teacher, surely I wasn’t supposed to admit my ignorance. But as I learned to express the words, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together,” the dynamic shifted from fear to empowerment for both teacher and student.

Third, thinking fuels reasoned action. We are not acting upon unformed thoughts, opinions, and raw emotions. Instead, we are shaping our message to be as powerful and potent as possible.

As we progress on our journey of understanding, it’s not enough to listen, learn, and think. Eventually we need to do something with the fruits of our effort.

Step 4: Action

When we act, especially in the creative realms, we create something that can be engaged with and responded to; it is a by-product of our listening, learning, and thinking abilities. It is a living document of where we are at in time.

We need to act in order to solidify what we’ve heard, learned, and thought, but fear often precedes action. We fear the unknown challenges, the potential failure, and the responses to our action. What will people say? Will they hate me? We can overcome this fear by reminding ourselves that we have done the necessary work leading up to this moment. And whatever comes of this action, we will respond with the desire to listen, learn, and think.

One important note about action. You’ll notice that I’ve placed it at step 4 of 6 in my journey of understanding. That’s because starting and ending with action are often recipes for disaster. There are are a million things you need to do before you act including listening, learning, and thinking. And there are a million things to reflect upon after you’ve acted.

Most importantly though, actions matter more than we can really understand and know. And we need them to count.

Step 5: Reflect

After we take action, then what? We must engage in the deep work of reflecting upon what worked and what didn’t. By taking the time to reflect, we have the chance to understand the assumptions we made leading to this moment, the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of our listening, where we fell short, and the new gaps in our knowledge.

While this is the shortest step I’ll talk about in my description of the journey of understanding, in reality it is the step that takes the most amount of time to work through.

Step 6: Repeat

Our journey of understanding is a life-long process that should be repeated over and over, time and time again. As Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark: “The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the finding of science.” I could say this another way, our repeatable journey of understanding is more important than arriving at a moment where you finally know it all.

To say there is work to be done is an understatement. I fear the complexities before us all will silence many and enrage the few to the point where we no longer seek to understand one another. It is my hope we can work together to ensure that the inequitable policies holding some down while lifting up others will be torn down and replaced with equity for all.

But until that happens, and I argue even after it happens, I’ll be here on my journey of understanding. I’ll be here helping as many people as I can to get their work to work. And I’ll be here working with you to impact the world in a positive way.

Will you join me on this journey of understanding?

Until next time, may creativity and curiosity fuel your life.

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