Tag Archive: listen

How to be a better ally text

We caught a glimpse of this in the #IAmStellenbosch campaign where a group of well-meaning students drew up some posters highlighting something about them that made them unique or different to the stereotype that their skin colour or background might typically suggest. It received a huge backlash from the media and people of all races across the country for a number of reasons. Possibly the biggest one was that once again we saw a race problem and we made it about us.

“But it wasn’t just white people doing it. It was people of all races.” That is true, although even a number of those people from other races were buying into the narrative by describing themselves as “non-white” as if “white” is the standard we compare everything to. That must have been heart-breaking for so many people to see.

This morning i was trying to think what post to write about trying to be an ally in the ongoing race conversation and journey and i had an idea of how it could have looked in Americaland around the time of setting slaves free:

“We realise we have been wrong. We should never have enslaved people. We have now freed them. We are getting it right now. How do we continue life now that the people who used to serve us are gone?”

Do you hear all the ‘we’ in there? The ‘I’ language? The ‘This-Is-Once-More-Still-About-Me’?

i am learning that this is one of the key pieces of moving forwards in South Africa. Realising that it CANNOT any longer be about me. About us. About white people. We dominated the narrative for so long. It is time the story was shifted to and told by someone else.

We need to learn to ACTIVELY LISTEN. 

Two of the ideas from the list of Ten Communication Commandments from the previous post i find particularly helpful in this:

Thou shalt listen actively, ask questions, and refrain from giving advice.

If you hear an idea that is new or strange, try it on for size.

For too long, white people were setting the pace, leading the way, creating the history [the one i learnt at school was a very biased one-sided affair] and in many ways attempting to be the standard [beauty magazines, television series, movies, sports stars] that we expected others to try and attain or adulate. It is long overdue time for us to let someone else have that space and to sincerely pay attention to what they may have to say.

As a white person we tend to egg-shell walk around these things and say them nicely because we don’t want to offend and we want to keep it all civil and YOU KNOW WHAT? We did offend. Apartheid was offensive. Wanting a Get-Out-Of-Apartheid-Free card that let’s us move forwards as if nothing happened and that that nothing had no consequences is offensive and unkind and oblivious, so to put it in more direct, less comfortable language we need to learn to SHUT UP!

“Ah, Brett man, that is unnecessarily harsh. You need to chill and go easy on us.”

No, i think the time for that may have passed. If you have not yet realised that there is still a need for some serious bridge-building in this country, then you need to catch up. But if you have and are there, then this is an aspect that must take centre stage. We need to learn to listen.

Which all feels a little bit like a paradox. Because in the #IAmStellenbosch post i was suggesting that white people need to speak up. And that is true. Here is how i see it:

# Where there are people not getting it and living in continued ignorance or misinformation, it is the role of us as white people to speak into that. As ‘Suits’ put it so eloquently last night, white people need to help our own “get their shit together”. Many of us are tired of trying to do this and frustrated with attempts at helping white people understand ‘white privilege’ and unpacking the absence of any kind of ‘white guilt’ and some have given up and decided only to continue working with those who get it and want to make a difference. But it should not be up to the oppressed or marginalised to have to explain this to us any more. Except where there is authentic relationship and they are holding us accountable.

# Where the conversation of moving forwards and what South Africa looks like and how reparation and restitution and reconciliation need to take place, that is an area where we need to be quiet and listen and follow people of colour in this area. i’m not saying we must not be a part of those conversations, but i am suggesting that we should not be the ones leading them. And that we need to err on keeping quiet.

Listen with the Intent to Understand

Thou shalt listen actively, ask questions, and refrain from giving advice.

If you hear an idea that is new or strange, try it on for size.

How does the idea of listening sit with you? Is this something you feel you do well or could do better at? What other ideas do you think could help make us a good ally in these conversations about race?

[For more ideas on How To Be An Ally, click here]

Interrupting Quote

This is a tough one for me. i feel like i can probably get over whatever other friend-losing behaviours i share after this one, but this one just feels so incredible rude, that i would struggle.

Immediate downgrade to acquaintance or person-i-walk-away-from-quickly-when-i-see-you-heading-my-way feels fair. Does that seem too harsh? Maybe you’ve never known someone who does it.

i am thinking of one person in particular. Really nice person. Quality. And so a number of years ago we hung out for coffee because i thought she would be someone it would be nice to get to know better.

It happened once and i did an internal double-take, but dismissed it as an accident or a misreading on my part.

But then it happened again. And again. And once more. Crisis! 

i was telling a story and halfway through each sentence, before i got to the point or the punchline or anything significant, she would respond… before the moment of response. Wait? You’re agreeing with me before i’ve given my point of view. You’re “I know!”ing and i haven’t even got to the part you might or might not know?

i imagine that if you’ve never had this happen to you, you may have no idea what i am talking about and great for you. If you do and have, you will be nodding your head vociferously and possibly letting out a long sigh.

If you are someone who does this,  i don’t even imagine you know. Surely you can’t. It has to be just a really bad habit, right.

But it is a game changer for me. Because it shows that you are not listening to me. Which shows that you don’t care about what i’m saying or that you are not interested in what i am talking about.

So the skill you need to work on is listening. Listen better and it will make you a good friend. This is probably something all of us need to practice to different degrees and it can never hurt. And maybe if you are brave enough you will ask three of your friends how good a listener they think you are.

Is it just me? Or has anyone else out there also come into contact with an Early Responder? And how serious was it for you? Is this something you would ever tell someone they do?

[For the next part on planning an answer before they have finished talking, click here]


*If I had a mic and all of SA was listening what would I say for 2015.

My hope, my dream for this beautiful nation is that people would step out of their comfort zones amd embrace other people.

I know this is not easy.

My dream is that young people would embrace older people, straight people would embrace gay and transgendered people, people of different racial hues would also embrace each other and share their stories…….

And we’d all simply learn to listen.

Not defend, not argue…. Just simply listen.

If we did that perhaps we’d see, truly see the richness and depth of this country…..

And it would enliven us and give us hope amidst the bigotry, the gender inequality, the rampant crime and the misdeeds of our government.

One of the most precious memories I have in life was when a friend of mine (who is an Afrikaans female) offered and then baked me some cupcakes.

It’s a small thing, but it meant the world to me.

That single gesture of simple humanity has saved me from making gross generalisations about Afrikaans people even in my angriest times.

I can tell many more stories, like how my friendship (and coffee at her place in Greenside) with Alexa Russell Matthews taught me a great deal about gender inequality and how friendships with people in the LGBT community helped me humanize that community.

I see faces.

I hear laughter.

I know the talents and pains and joys of people.

I don’t simply see the label.

In a very real sense I see beyond it and to the irreducible complexity that is just one human life.

My dream in 2015 is that South Africans would make a visceral and deeply human connection between the labels and the people who carry them and in so doing learn that when we deny one part of humanity, we ultimately deny ourselves, that, as Martin Luther King jr put it,’ injustice anywhere is a threat to freedom and justice everywhere’.

From the Jacaranda trees of surburban Gauteng, resplendent in majestic purple to the sugar cane fields of Kwazulu Natal, that give sweetness to our land to the unspoilt and scenic coastline of the Eastern Cape; more beautiful than just about any place your heart wishes to go to the beautiful tip of Africa…. Cape Town; with it’s sweeping, majestic and panoramic sea views and Table Mountain.

This is home for me and it is home for you.

My dream for 2015 is that the son’s and daughter’s of this beautiful country would step out and embrace each other; embrace the courage, the patience and ultimately the love it takes to learn to find the humanity in those who are different and embrace it and learn to love it.

[to hear what Nkosi Gola would say to South Africa, click here]

[To read some other thoughts Sindile had on creating a new South Africa, click here]

another week, another ‘Coffee with Jesus’ cartoon strip holding a mirror up towards us, this time in the area of prayer…

Psalm 46.10 reads, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ quite often most of us forget the ‘be still’ part as illustrated really well here:

Coffee With Jesus: Not Talk

of course too often we also get the ‘and know that I am God’ part pretty wrong as well, but that’s another post…

brett fish and tbV on bench

Note, this is remarkably different from “be incontinent” so try not to get confused. [in fact to be honest one of the definitions listed was “Not restrained; uncontrolled” and i am going to be speaking to exactly the opposite of that…]

At the point of writing this, my wife aka the beautiful Val, is currently in Americaland while i am still in South Africa [that is about to change in 5 days time though, can’t wait!] and if all i was going to say in this post was ‘be on the same continent’ then most of you could probably skip this one and move on to the next one – being on the same continent is something the majority of married couples seem to get right most of the time.

But what i am really wanting to be speaking into is the idea of being present, because there might be times when physically you are around your partner, but because of where you are in your mind [distracted] or your body [watching tv, sending a text] you may as well be on a different continent. You might feel like you have given your partner important time that you could have spent being somewhere else or doing something else [which you might be inclined to tell them – don’t!] but for them it might feel like you weren’t really all that interested or invested in what they were saying.


There may be times when this is not possible or easy – you might be in the middle of fixing a very delicate piece of equipment as your wife comes to have a chat with you or be watching the final two minutes of extra time in the World Cup Soccer final with your side 1-0 but making a monumental counter-attack down the field… and in those cases it might be good to ask for a few minutes first to quickly finish what you are doing before you give your attention. But for the most part when your person wants to speak to you, try as far as possible to stop what you are doing, to look them in the eyes and give them your full attention while they speak to you. This could be for really important conversations or it could be while your wife tells you how her shopping trip went, but the more times you actually stop what you are doing, put things you are busy with down and sit and look her in the eyes and pay attention to what she is saying, the more loved she will feel. [Especially if you are able to pull yourself away from an important game or activity – it communicates “You are important to me and i want to give you my full attention!”]


There is nothing that says “I am listening to you” more directly than eye contact. If at all possible [and it usually is] look at your person when they are speaking to you. If it is necessary to hold them with a “just a moment” so you can put aside your phone, turn the tv off, walk to where they are standing or sit next to them, then do it and look them in the eyes and say, “What is it you wanted to tell me?” This may feel a little awkward if you are not used to doing it, but for most people it can be such a powerful thing. And unlike incontinence this is about being restrained and in control. Be intentional about giving the person you love the knowledge that you care about them and what they have to say. And being present means really listening to what they are saying, not starting to come up with your response half way through their sentence. Listen to the end and then respond.

turn cellphone to silent


Different people feel differently on this one, but i feel so completely strongly about it that it is worth mentioning. If you meet me for coffee and while we are hanging out your phone rings and you answer it, what that communicates to me is that at that moment, for you, anyone in the whole world [even a wrong number] is more important to you than me. If you want to show me love and that you care about me, you will turn your cellphone off when you have chosen to spend time with me. My buddy Dunc in the past has told me he is expecting a business call and then i don’t mind at all because he has invited my permission and shown me he cares for me that way. If you can turn your phone off for the duration of a movie or church service or business meeting, then please show me i am more important than those things when we have chosen to hang out. Obviously different situations dictate different things [i’m not saying never have your phone on around me]

Being present can be such a hugely significant thing in a relationship. It communicates love and priority, care and attention, focus and intentionality… it says “You are important to me. I care about spending time with you. I am interested in what you have to say.”

if you’re feeling brave, go and ask your spouse on a scale of one [being completely distant] to ten [being absolutely present and involved] how would they rate you? this might bring about some frightening results, but it may provide a catalyst to help you start working on an aspect of your relationship that could really use it.

[to continue on to Rich E’s one way to love your spouse better with an excellent activity on listening, click here]

To take an example: Brett, let’s be honest: your youtube videos suck. Big time. And I don’t even see the purpose in it.

i am continuing with my response to the ‘a nonny miss?’ email i received, because i feel there are a bunch of things to be learned from it, which relate far beyond this simple email.

the second part i want to look at is specifically that line ‘And I don’t even see the purpose in it.’ – now i really only want to use the email as a launching point because i think this point goes much deeper than the silly you tube videos i sometimes make, so let’s forget the videos and take a step back from our lives and look at them through this lens. because i think this is something i have been guilty of in the past and probably still get wrong, but have definitely observed myself getting a whole lot better at it as i get older…

so the launch point is this – someone saw something i did, didn’t understand the purpose of it and so formed a judgement and then acted on that judgement.

sound familiar yet? anyone else out there cringing just a little.

i just returned from a visit to one of my best friends, dreadlocked Mike [who was part of the duo who helped give me dreads two years ago!] and it was so good seeing him and getting to hang with him again. and to be reminded of this incredible gift that Mike has…

Mike has this amazing ability to make a strong statement about something – eg. Clowns suck! [i don’t think he thinks that] – and then when i jump in and agree with him – “You’re so right Mike, clowns are evil!” [they’re not! well, most of them] he will spend the next thirty minutes trying to convince me why clowns don’t suck and are in fact amazing.

Yes, it can be frustrating and seem hypocritical at times, but what i have witnessed through it is Mike’s ability to really put himself on both sides of an argument [especially one he feels quite strongly about] and argue the merits of both sides. I think that later he weighs it all and hopefully takes into account what i have added and comes up with a refined opinion on the matter, but i really think it can be a powerful thing in terms of being able to, to some extent, understand the reasons behind an opposing view point.


how many of us can do that? i’m not talking about agreeing with someone you disagree with. i’m talking about taking the time [and humility] to try and hear or see things the way they are. who knows? it may end up changing your opinion or mind about something… although more often than not it may just help you understand why you see things the way you do so much more strongly.

i think the older i get the less i feel i KNOW [for absolute sure fact real] but the things i do KNOW i feel i know so much more strongly and believe more deeply. i have an insane amount of incredible people in and around my life and they keep me sharpened in so may areas and i am so grateful. people who take time to move beyond the superficial and really wrestle with life and faith and relationships and poverty and world transformation and the current form of Graeme Smith.

so i made some silly videos. someone saw that and came up with an opinion and then challenged me about them [which i Love, but we’ll get to that later] but he never took time to ask me, ‘So why do you make those videos? Is there a reason?’ and so he may never know [altho i imagine i will mention it sometime during these]

the asking of that simple question, ‘Why did you do that?’ or similar ones like, ‘Why do you think that?’ ‘How come you do things that way?’can be a powerful relationship builder. You don’t have to agree with the person’s response, but it is helpful to know it.

my challenge with this post is for you to ask someone a question this week [and i would LOVE it if you came back here and gave feedback in the comments] about something you don’t understand [that they do or think or feel] – someone from a different religion [why do you pay five times a day?] or cultural group [what does family look like to you?], perhaps it could be a close friend [what is your practice in terms of saving money?] or someone in the office or school [what do you like about that particular band or song or sport?] or a hundred other things. but be on the look out for something that doesn’t make sense to you and even maybe something you have a strong opinion about and simply ask the question in a non-threatening way, and take time to really listen to their response. maybe it will prompt a question in response… maybe it will strengthen relationship… perhaps it will simply inspire a moment of, ‘Wow, i never saw it that way.’

1 Corinthians 13.7 ends with ‘[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’ and i really love that – this feels like an aspect of Love hoping – that the person i don’t understand is not simply an idiot who has chosen an opposing view to mine, but someone who i can learn from and be encouraged by and build relationship with.

[to continue to the next post springboarded from this mail about ‘Speaking the Truth in Love’ go here]

Proverbs 18 vs 13 says, ‘To answer before listening —  that is folly and shame.’

Whoops, my hand is up. Is anyone else’s hand up? This is not a great start.

One way in which you can definitively show Love to someone is by listening without interrupting them. And i do confess that i do this way too much. Well the opposite of this, the interrupting part. Maybe i get half points for listening AND interrupting, but it doesn’t feel any better.

i remember a friend i had back in Cape Town, who while she was listening to you would say “Yes!” and nod her head in agreement or I’mwithyoument often during the conversation. Sounds like a really helpful, positive thing, excepting that she would always say “Yes!” too early.

“But wait, i haven’t actually said anything. You just yessed my buildup and you didn’t even give me a chance to”Yes!”

Ooh, it used to make me so frustrated, because not only was it a sign that she was not listening all that intently, or seeming to care about what i was saying, but it was a strong sign that she was not listening while still going through the motions of pretending to listen. i eventually started avoiding talking to her much, because it always felt so inauthentic.


whereas, this has been far more my experience and it completely also demonstrates a lack of Love, even though it feels like a positive thing in itself because i generally do listen quite well to people, but often get so excited about what they are saying and this point that i have to add to the conversation that i excitedly interrupt them so i can say what i want to say. and while this may feel more noble than the previous one [after all, we tend to think our brokenness always smells sweeter than our neighbors] what i am subtly suggesting is that “what i have to say is more important than what you have to say” which apart from for the most part being completely untrue, is just plain rude.

i do it because i get excited, and i think i also do it sometimes because i have a bad memory in some areas and am worried that i will forget my point and the sooner i get it out the better for us all [because it is going to be THAT good of a point? riiiight.] but both ways are still acted out in rudeness.

when i take time to really listen to you, and listen in an engaged manner [by “Yes”ing at the right times, by noddng at points I agree with, by giving affirmation ir showing empathy where there is a gap] then i demonstrate to you, quite powerfully, that i Love you. the good kind of Love.


sometimes while someone is speaking, i catch myself working on my answer or response to what they are saying when they are halfway through saying something, which can also be a sign of not listening. which again, is not an indication of great Love.

when i listen to you without interrupting, without giving off verbal or non-verbal indications that anything or everything else is more important than what you are saying to me right now, when i wait until you have finished before i respond or even start constructing my response, then i will truly be showing you that i have Love and respect and appreciation for you and what you have risked saying to or sharing with me.

may we become better at Love as we embrace this idea and start to see it more at work in our lives

can anyone relate?

[to see the next point on speaking without accusing, click here]

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