Laura Hyde, 130 YinD
I want to listen
I love listening. When prompted, I always include “good listener” in a list of positive traits about myself. I value being intentional and taking the time to hear what people have to say, learn about their experience, and build connection and understanding through deep listening. I prefer one on one interactions to big groups in part because it is much easier to hear what people are really saying, spoken and unspoken. In the past, I have been told I am “too quiet” when I am really just choosing to listen first and speak second. Occasionally, I get so lost in follow up questions that my friends now know to stop and remind me to talk about myself: “but what about you??” Most of the jobs I have held included trainings on active listening, the animated Brene Brown video on sympathy vs empathy, and role play on how to be supportive in a conversation with a client. I am by no means perfect but this is definitely a skill I have worked to cultivate and truly appreciate in others as well.
When I arrived in Thailand I faced what every volunteer does: the struggle with the language barrier. Subsequently, the ability to listen. I remember the first night with my host family. Even though we had already had some basic Thai language classes, I was immensely frustrated – at times to the point of tears – with all the things I could not understand or communicate. When I lived with host families before, I had studied the language for years prior to arriving. However this time, this language, I had studied for only days. As I sat in class listening to the sounds, and practicing these new tones, I told myself that the language is where I want and need to focus my energy. I want to be able to listen.
My listening skills have certainly helped me in learning Thai, but also posed some barriers. I am less likely than some of my – usually male – colleagues to invite myself into conversations and speak at length about any topic, especially myself, in order to get more practice saying these new Thai verbs and nouns. Part of my instinct to listen certainly stems from a very sexist conditioning. Like most women, I have been taught to listen to others first, to take on other people’s problems as my own and that my voice and opinions have inherently less value than my male peers. There are times when I have chosen to listen for fear of the repercussions when I speak up. Sometimes I am being intentional with my choice to listen and sometimes I am just afraid to talk. It is an ongoing challenge to unlearn this conditioning and find a balance.
As time has passed during my service and my Thai has improved, I understand so much more than I did those first few days with my host family. Yet, I still feel frustrated about all that I cannot understand, and what I am missing that remains unspoken. Part of my desire to listen also comes from my drive to dismantle systems of oppression. As a white cisgender woman it is essential that I take the time to learn about racism, classism, cissexism, my role in upholding them and my potential to subvert/disrupt them. It is essential that I take the time to listen. Those jobs where I was trained on active listening, I was working with populations who are marginalized and continue to be systematically silenced: survivors of sexual assault, people who are currently incarcerated, children of color from low-income communities, first generation college students and international high school students. Additionally, most of these communities I do not belong to so being able to first listen to their experiences is not a suggestion but imperative to the work.
Peace Corps teaches us to use Participatory Analysis for Community Action (PACA) tools from the very beginning of our service. These tools are to help us understand and assess the needs of the community so that we can make sure our work is centered around the community-identified needs. This is important because a lot of past and present “development” work throughout the world has not taken community needs into account and instead have proven to be harmful, destructive and replicating colonial and neo-colonial structures. However, the PACA tools have their limitations as well. If I am still struggling to understand the language and the indirect communication of my co-workers and community, these tools can fall short. The skills that I feel I have cultivated to be able to listen in English, to body language, in a cultural context I am familiar with does not completely transfer. I want to first do no harm, but how can I be sure my viewpoints and projects are not mirroring neo-colonial structures if I fear my ears are failing me? I doubt that I will ever feel confident that I can truly, deeply listen in this language in the ways and contexts that I have in the past.
I do believe that there is still so much good that can come from this work and these cross-cultural connections and relationships that all of us Peace Corps Volunteers are doing. But this continues to be on my mind, as I learn to accept my limitations and strive for balance. I still struggle with this thing that I feel is such a fundamental part of myself and my identity, that is lacking here. I want to listen.