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The Pain of Being “Unheard”

Many of us are angry these days.  Perhaps there has always been anger hovering just under the surface.  But in the past year, it has surfaced and grown exponentially.

I have been thinking a lot about anger.  My anger.  That of those who hold different beliefs than I hold. Those who are in a situation that is different than my situation.  And I wonder if, just possibly, it boils down to being “unheard.”

Hear me out. Let’s start with my assumption that most people want the same things – making it simple….we want peace, safety, freedom, and prosperity.  It is the definition of those terms that causes conflict.

How do you resolve conflict?  You talk.  You discuss.  And most of all you listen. You ask questions to try to understand, you listen to the answers with an open mind.

Ah, that might be the challenge.

It is difficult to have an open mind when you are angry.  Particularly if that anger has festered below the surface for a long time.

I fear that we have a very angry country right now. Clearly, we are divided, fractured.

I can only look into my own anger to try to figure out what is causing it, and I can feel the anger grow when I feel as if I am not being heard.  I position my points in the discussion…they are cogent and logical – but probably just scratching the surface of what’s really going on in my emotions. And the other party shares their opinion, perhaps laced with some of their anger, and I don’t feel heard. So I restate my point more emphatically, more forcefully.  And perhaps laced with a bit of my own anger.  And off we go.

Now we have two angry people who don’t feel heard.  That hurts.  It feeds the anger.

We move from trying to convince another that we are right to, eventually, name-calling.  How’s that working for us?

I have friends and family members who have become more angry and more strident in their anger in the last four years.  It felt to me like each Tweet brought out issues to the surface that had been festering for a long time.  They were thrilled to dispense with political correctness.  They were excited to see the possibility of dealing with the expanding immigrant population.  Perhaps they were excited that special treatment for minorities had come to an end, and we could get back to “normal.”  At the beginning of the four years, I was actually right there with them.

For me, and I can only speak to my own thoughts, I began to see an “either/or” emerge, along with an emboldening of speaking out about things that were taboo to be discussed outright. That concerned me. It felt like there was a gauntlet being thrown that said, “We’ve stayed silent for too long, and now we speak.”

The realization that the “either/or” seemed wrong to me led me on a path of reading, talking, and pondering.  It led me on a path to see the world differently.  In particular, a picture of black America emerged for me after the death of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor. Over months of reading and reflecting, I caught a glimpse of a people that had, perhaps, been unheard for many years, and as the post-death riots erupted, I looked at our country differently.

I saw a country that was still fighting the Civil War, as well as a group of Americans that had been trying, unsuccessfully, to be heard for 200 years.

I read about the Jim Crow laws – I’d heard the term but never thought much about it.  The more I read, the more I realized that while slavery ended with the end of the Civil War, in some cases it returned in the form of laws that messaged that blacks were somehow inferior.  That message, while subtle, was loud and remained in the historical memory creating a systemic anger of a large group of American citizens who felt unheard.

If you are interested in a succinct, metaphorical history of the evolution of Blacks in America, read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste.

While the 1960s saw formal elimination of those laws, the mindset was cemented in the American people.  We legislated the heck out of equal everything, but as we know, the legislation only fosters compliance, not commitment.  To truly change our culture, we need commitment, not compliance.

But in the land of the free, blacks could protest, and protest they did.  How long do you protest and not be heard before the protests escalate?

Fast forward to recent time.  There are many American citizens who, today, mourn what could have been.  They are my family, my friends, and my acquaintances.  And I cannot have a conversation with them.  They are angry.  They feel unheard.

How long does this group protest and not be heard before the protests escalate?  Perhaps this was a much shorter window.

I’m not excusing any of it. Rioting is wrong.  Looting is wrong.  Destruction of property is wrong.  Violent loss of life is unforgivable.  It doesn’t matter who perpetrates and who is the victim.  It is wrong.

Could we start there? If we can’t agree on that, there may be no reason to continue.  But if we can agree, then there is only one path forward.  To seek the root cause and fix it. For all. That requires dialogue with an open mind and an open heart.  That requires putting away the defensive shield we unveil when we think someone is challenging our beliefs.  That requires asking questions to clarify intent and content.

That’s hard to do when you’re angry.  It’s hard to do when I’m angry.  I don’t know of another way out of this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

We need to allow everyone to feel heard.

Carol Anderson
Carol Andersonhttp://andersonperformancepartners.com
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

19 COMMENTS

  1. I believe this is the key that almost no one understands, and even fewer actively pursue. Even when people talk, it is usually talking AT each other not WITH each other. They are literally using different languages.

    “It is the definition of those terms that causes conflict.”

    Maybe start with that in mind and see where yuo get.

  2. Carol–I’m still processing the events of a couple of weeks ago now when the Capitol was stormed. The lives of Senators and Representatives were in imminent danger, yet when the Capitol was cleared and order restored, more than 100 of them continued to push the unfounded story that the election had been rigged. They perpetuated the lie even when one consequence of the lie – an uncontrolled mob – was staring them in the face. What a lost opportunity for these “leaders” to turn a corner; to repudiate such stark mendacity. But they couldn’t do it. Power, and in the case of two Senators, rabid ambition was at center stage. It’s really, really hard right now to open my heart to that and to them.

    • Yes, Jeff. It is exceedingly difficult. My husband and I have lost two friends this week because their blind belief in what you described is untenable to us. I was hopeful on Inauguration Day – all of the terrific rhetoric and hope, which so quickly gave way to a continuation of partisan thinking, protecting the former President from the consequences he so deserves. As I read your comment, I have to rethink what I said about being unheard. I was not excusing those who stormed the Capitol because they were unheard, any more than I would excuse any seditious or destructive act by any group of people.

      The above thought came to me as I was talking with my husband about 1/6. In a Ripple Room conversation on Melissa Hughes article about Right to Remain Silent, she and I were both blasted by someone who heard the term insurrection used for the 1/6 riots, and began decrying the looting and rioting over the summer after the death of George Floyd. The concept of trying for so long to be heard, and finally resorting to violence seemed a logical progression. So much of what I write today is grounded in my own growing awareness of how hard blacks have been trying to be heard.

      I’m not in any way saying we should “hear” those who want to keep America White Again and press forward with riotous acts. What happened on 1/6 was sedition and treason. It was an act of sedition and treason against our government. There is no rationalization for that.

      That said, I think there is room for more listening and more being heard. I appreciate your comment and for the opportunity to clarify where I was coming from.

    • Still thinking….we now have two openly QAnon members, along with a large percentage of our Congress that don’t see the need to inflict consequences on the former President (it feels good to be able too say that) that incited a riot which cost lives. That’s a big problem we have to deal with.

      Our government, and actually, our country, has lost the concept of consequences. We really need to get that back.

      • Carol —
        Thanks for dialoguing. I find myself venting a lot lately, and I trust you didn’t see me venting at you or your message. I want to listen – I want to have an open heart – but the all too common refrain is, as you pointed out, the “Yeah, but what about the….” style of argument. To equate the insurrection at the Capitol with the summer protests is misguided. First of all, there is proof that some (much?) of the violence / looting was perpetrated by individuals not associated with BLM. I do not condone the violence and looting, but the context for it is easier for me to understand: 400+ years of repression. And most recently, the protests were in response to a seemingly endless series of deaths/ killings / murders of blacks at the hands of white authorities. Why was the largely white crowd storming the Capitol – because they’ve been fed the big lies that they have a diminished place in society and that Jews are replacing them. It’s hard for me to listen to that.

        • Thanks for dialoguing with me! That is what hit me – 400+ years of being unheard. I agree that it is easier to understand –

          What’s difficult for me now is the realization that there is a huge group of people who truly believe that our country should not be the melting pot that we have purported to be for so long, but instead, long for a time when there was a homogenous population that could be controlled.

          Too much reading lately – just stumbled upon Sinclair Lewis’ It Couldn’t Happen Here – where have I been all these years? I was talking to a friend about that who studied that book in school and she asked me if I would have understood/forseen what that illustrated when I was in school – like, No.

          I am coming to the conclusion, as you probably already have, that it really is a matter of education – the dialogue and understanding about all facts – the ones we think are okay, and the ones we abhor. I think that’s the only way we can move forward.

          • Education, yes, but as Lewis writes, it’s also about a fundamental belief / disbelief in our democratic system. Not everyone in Washington loves democracy. It’s very easy for me to conceive of a dictatorship – an oligarchy – taking root. Those Republicans who voted for impeachment are now suffering recrimination in their home districts. Party over nation.

            • I just watched a CNN opinion blurb about the way Fox is portraying Biden, and it is very scary. I ran across an Atlantic article that traced Trump back to Cohn/McCarthy, with Dershowitz in the middle – news to me, but it makes sense. My husband’s point, after I shared the article, is that what is happening today isn’t new. My counterpoint is that they didn’t have the internet and social media back then. That is a no win situation because any quieting of the internet screams censorship and that is such an inflammatory word that it isn’t arguable.

              It feels to me like we are in a struggle about basic values, and they are clashing. I know what to do about that in an organization, but I’m clueless as to how to help the country.

              • Carol — I think you hit in on the head – a struggle over basic values. And in the case of Fox, it’s truth vs profit. Fox is struggling for its economic life given the growing number of hate / lie-spewing right-wing media channels. It has to stay “relevant” to its viewers, and it has a new target: JRB. Trump is reportedly considering starting his own network. No surprise. He needs that in-your-face platform.
                Your husband is right; none of this is “new.” “Us” vs “them” is part of our national DNA. Sometimes is smolders beneath the surface; sometimes it’s like a lava flow.
                The underlying driver, as always, is power: who has it; who wants it. Mitch McConnell is the minority leader, but he’s acting like the majority leader.

                • I used to wonder if we brought our son up to compete in the world. We brought him up to care, and when he first entered the military, he struggled with the concept of power – the frequent lack of logic in the argument, because the argument was really about power. He’s figured it out now, and I’m glad that he has both contexts within which to operate. But I still struggle with power as a justification for actions or beliefs. It feels, to me, as if our country is grounded in power, and for those who want the country to be more caring, they just don’t have a strong enough platform.

  3. Thank you Carol for a most insightful and thoughtful piece.

    I agree with your thinking, it starts with you (me, each of us), and I can only speak my own thoughts.

    I like that you have aligned anger and not feeling heard, and that the way through is with dialogue, open minds and open hearts, or could that be quiet minds and open hearts?

    You make the point about how hard it is to listen when you are angry. It is hard to do anything when one is angry and in the fifgt/flight/freezeappease place. So quieter, safer, more open places to come and be, to invite dialogue, and to deeply listen to the other, after all, as I say to my children, “I will always love you, whatever you do, I will not condone you bad behaviour, and I will pull you up on it.”.

    My love for my fellow human beings is what keeps me listening.

    Colin

    • Hi Colin – your point about loving your children but not condoning bad behavior is a really good start. As a country, we have lost the ability to demonstrate consequences because we have become so good at rationalizing why the behavior happened. That might be a really good place to start. Thank you for your comment.

  4. Carol, right here..
    “ To seek the root cause and fix it. For all. That requires dialogue with an open mind and an open heart. That requires putting away the defensive shield we unveil when we think someone is challenging our beliefs”

    In order to have that open mind… we have to find forgives…which is hard in all of this… but it is doable. If you are not reaching people on the same level, air helps to change a little.. perspective as you say…goes a long way. We’re allowed to feel…and react to the real but we also get to have a say…when we speak our voice..with this choice. It is the power of the open mind and self belief that enables them to defend what they say and then also own it…and with listening…we are being open.

    That’s my thought here

    Thank you for sharing this most raw feeling and honest voice.. truly respect you. And thank you
    Paula

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