“Before you judge a person, walk a mile in their shoes.” “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” “To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.”

As these proverbs indicate, an essential element in effective communication is the ability to really listen to and understand perspectives other than our own. The more sensitive or controversial the conversation topic, the more important this skill becomes. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve got a lot of room for growth in this area, and a brief survey of mainstream and social media channels indicates I’m not alone. In light of that, I want to introduce you to a man whom I have never met, but whose story has challenged and inspired me to really try to understand the perspectives of people who don’t see the world like me.

Theo E.J. Wilson is, among many other things, a community activist. He is a survivor of race-related police brutality and the friend of a man who was killed by police brutality. He began to share his experiences and insights on YouTube, and as his popularity increased, so did his critics. He soon found himself in an online war with white supremacists in the comment sections of his videos. At some point in the process, he was inspired to really try to understand what could lead someone to believe what his critics believed. This led him to “go undercover” so to speak, as an online white supremacist. The process led him to some unexpected discoveries. Here is his story in his own words from a TEDx talk he gave earlier this year. I’d encourage you to find 18 minutes to watch the entire thing. I’ll share some of my own favorite quotes from the talk below.

Here are some of the quotes from his talk that really stuck out to me.

“Unexpected compassion…Never in a billion years did I think I could have some kind of compassion for people who hated my guts…Just enough compassion to understand how they got to where they are.”

“To get to this point of understanding you have to let go of that fear and embrace your curiosity.”

In both his TED talk as well as a later conversation with NPR’s TED Radio Hour (it’s only 12 minutes and definitely worth a listen), Wilson explains that he does not in any way ENDORSE the views held by white supremacists, but that he can finally UNDERSTAND how someone could come to hold them.

Wilson believes that if we are ever going to bridge the ever-growing divides we see in the world, we are going to have to learn how to “have courageous conversations with difficult people.” He has inspired me to learn to really listen; I hope he can do the same for you.


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