Listening is Revolutionary

listening is revolutionary - AJ Dahiya

There is a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln that inspires me:

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.“


So much of our social discourse has dissolved into stalemates. Now more than ever, listening may be the most revolutionary heartivist act that any of us can undertake. To offer another person our attention and presence is a gift. 

I have written before about my belief that listening is more than being silent; it is the spaciousness to receive the words of another with the authentic expectation that something new and important will be shared. For most people I know (myself included), this is difficult. More often, we are filtering someone else’s words or actions through the perspective of our own unmet needs, preconceived judgments, or the defensiveness of our ego. 

As heartivists striving for connection, wholeness, and peace, the practice of cultivating discernment over judgment begins with listening and reflection. There is a practice from the study of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) I use to help me grow in this area. I find that intently thinking about my own needs and emotions in a difficult conversation, as well as trying to place myself in the mindset of the “other” helps shift my perspective significantly. (If you try this exercise, I would love to hear about your experience.) 

As I grow in my heartivist practice, I still sometimes feel anger, indignation, or grief at the suffering in the world; but I see those things, and my relationship to them, with clear eyes and less reactivity. 

This isn’t a warm and fuzzy addendum to social change. It is the very foundation of it. 

In the words of my hero, Martin Luther King Jr.,

“You can have no influence over those for whom you have underlying contempt.” 

Activism, Identity & Service

The scholar Juana Rodriguez defines activism as “an engagement with hauntings of history, a dialogue between memories of the past and the imaginings of the future manifested through the acts of our own present yearning.”

Her work examines the relationship between identity and activism; more specifically, the idea that monolithic collective identities formed in the interest of solidarity can be reductive and even oppressive. Rodriguez and others ask, how can we hold space for our own unique individual identities, full of nuance and complexity, while still building broad-based social movements?

I see the fault lines of this tension reflected in nearly every prominent social issue; as activists are called to unify towards an expansive collective identity, they are concurrently pulled more strongly to smaller circles that organize around shared aspects of their personal stories. In the broader push for women’s equality, for example, many queer or BIPOC activists felt that the larger umbrella narrative did not fully account for the intersectionality of their experience. You can probably think of many more examples from your own work.

As heartivists, we reframe the focus of activism away from the self as center. Being drawn to a specific cause may come from direct personal experiences, but our work as heartivists is not actually about “us” at all.

Service, by definition, is self-less, yet in acting from a service-centered heart, our work actually becomes a truer reflection of ourselves, our humanity, and our shared hopes for the world.

There is no call to squeeze yourself into a collective narrative that, like a too-small garment, poorly fits you. Our personal identity is no longer a barrier to meaningful connection and culture shift; rather, we are finally able to dress ourselves with the intricate and beautiful nuances our lives have stitched for us alone.

Along the heartivist path, what we think of as “activism” shifts too.

Understanding that the world is changed by our example and not our opinions, we may come to observe that listening is a powerful form of activism. Kindness is activism.

And self reflection? Truly revolutionary.