“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Stephen R. Covey
We are once again in the wake of a tragedy. News outlets are filled with coverage, details are slowly emerging, and the cover of Time Magazine shows a frightened child in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. Many runners were running in memory of the Newtown, Connecticut victims, meeting tragedy with tragedy.
It is so difficult to find the words to express thoughts and feelings when there are infinitely more questions. How could someone do this? Why would someone do this? Am I at risk? We’ve even caught one of the suspected bombers alive, but still the unfortunate reality is that the answers to these questions may never be known and will certainly never be satisfying, certainly not to a daughter-less mother, a son-less father or a victim missing a limb.
So, how did we get here? Simply put, someone wasn’t listening and someone wasn’t being heard. As of this writing, we don’t know much about why this horrendous act was perpetrated. But what we do know is that it was a statement – a political statement from a disenfranchised party, be it a person or a group, during the busiest area of a highly visible race on a highly visible day.
When people lash out, whether it’s in line at the dry cleaner, via road rage or in acts of terrorism like school shootings or the occurrences at the Boston Marathon, they usually do so because nobody has listened to them. People get stifled, ignored, pushed down, or just out shouted, and not enough of us are listening. So, feeling unheard and misunderstood, they scream louder, through social media or any other outlet they can find, until they finally lash out with anger or violence, so that someone will be forced to pay attention and listen to them.
To be clear, it is not anyone’s fault when someone resorts to violence, other than the person who cannot or does not contain their own emotions. But when we ask ourselves, what could we have done, perhaps there is one answer that may have helped.
As a society, we are so connected by technology: email, news feeds, Facebook, Twitter, Skype. There is so much talk. So much chatter and noise. But nobody listens. Most people are merely waiting their turn to chime in with their own woes. As human beings we all want to be understood, we want to have that moment of satisfaction and that feeling that someone actually understands us, maybe even cares. As adults, as citizens in our communities, and in our schools, it is incumbent on us to actively choose to listen, to show empathy and compassion, and to give to others the feeling of being understood. We don’t have to agree with everything others are saying, but by listening and letting them know that they’ve been heard, we may remove their need to shout louder. Otherwise, a tool of communication becomes a tool of separation.
Mediators do not have magic wands. All we really do is convince people to come in for a day, disconnect from technology, and allow us to listen to them and address their concerns. We ask them to do this for each other. We let them know we hear them and that they are understood, thereby hopefully reducing or eliminating conflict. School counselors, therapists, human resource professionals and others in the mental health and services professions are trained to do the same thing. But every person reading this can make a difference, too.
In the coming days, weeks, and months, I implore people to take a moment to truly listen. Listen to a friend. Listen to a colleague. Listen to your children. Check in. Ask questions and seek first to understand as we are all trying to understand. Maybe that will be the difference between conflict and resolution. And maybe even it will be the difference between violence and satisfaction.