The Art of Listening: How Men Can Support Women

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Dear friends,

The Association for Women in Business here in Addis recently invited me to give a talk on why men should support women and how men can do this well. I loved this conversation, and I want to share my perspective with you.

As always, thanks to the subscribers who make Stop & Think possible and for your thoughtful feedback. I love hearing from you.

Yours with gratitude,
Andrew

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  1. Who Needs Support?

Every human, regardless of age or gender, needs the support of others.

From womb to tomb, we need others’ support simply to exist. But more profoundly, we need one another’s support to flourish, to come fully alive and to discover the meaning of why we exist.

Our need for others is not an unfortunate flaw but a beautiful feature of how God made us. We are not self-sufficient gods. We are interdependent creatures who are made for communication and cooperation with others.

Support comes from two Latin words: sub, which means “from below,” and portare, which means “to carry.” To support another person is to leave your privileged high-ground and to help them carry the weight of their life. The brilliant African intellectual Augustine wrote that our love is the true weight of our lives. What we love gives our life passion and purpose. And thus to support another person is to help them carry the weight of what they love and also the weight of what attacks and seeks to destroy their love.

In short, support is the work of love in service of another’s flourishing. We all need it.

But in a male-dominated, patriarchal society like Ethiopia, women may find the support of men rare and valuable. This has been my experience working with women as a professor, mentor, and friend in Addis.

In this essay, I’d like to comment on why men should support women and how men might support women. In the first part, I’ll speak as a Christian ethicist. In the second part, I’ll speak as an education practitioner.

  1. Why Should Men Support Women?

Why should men support women? Why should men abandon patriarchal privilege and help women carry the weight of their loves for their flourishing?

As a Christian ethicist, I propose two primary reasons.

First, the very first chapter of the Bible teaches that men and women were created in God’s image to rule the earth and to exercise leadership for the world’s flourishing (Genesis 1:26-28). This vision of humanity was truly revolutionary in the ancient world.

To say that women are made in God’s image is to say that women are created as personal representatives of God. Women have been stamped and authorized by God to rule and lead, just like men, so God’s creation can reach its full potential.

When I see a woman, I see a glimpse of God, a glimpse of that infinite divine creativity and authority to bring freedom and prosperity to the world. Do you want to find God in the world? Do you want God’s will for the world to succeed? Know and support women. According to Genesis 1, our world can’t flourish if only men are recognized as God’s image and empowered to lead.

Genesis 1 was like a wrecking ball that gently but fiercely smashed the best-selling patriarchy of the ancient Near East. For example, the Mesopotamian myth Enuma Elish taught that a young male god murdered a female goddess and fabricated the oceans from her blood and the earth from her body. Enuma Elish literally teaches that the world is founded on gender violence! Humans are then created to work as slaves for the gods’ feasting. Only priests and kings – only powerful men – are made in the gods’ image and have any real value. Of course, women are at the bottom of this enslaving, patriarchal order.

Imagine how shocking it would have been to hear Genesis 1 for the first time as an ancient person. God is not a killer,[1] and God does not create slaves. God creates all men – and all women – with God’s own dignity, God’s own transcendent value and authority to exercise leadership for creation’s flourishing. This is why Genesis later says that if you attack a human, you have attacked God (Genesis 9:6). And Genesis 1 had the audacity to declare explicitly that women have an equal share in this divine image.

This is the most original and authoritative revelation of God’s will for humanity from a biblical perspective. When men support women, we see and celebrate the brilliance and beauty of God, and we serve the success of God’s will for humanity and the world.

Second, Jesus was often asked the ultimate question, “What does God really want? What is true success?” And Jesus always gave the same answer: “Love your neighbor as your self.” I love the radicalism of Jesus’s answer. It is the most powerful basis for gender equality and empowerment.

Jesus didn’t say, “Love your woman neighbor as a woman.” He said, “Love your neighbor as your self” – full stop. This command cuts across every gender bias, inequality, and injustice. It teaches men to see and treat women as neighbors, as full moral equals, not simply to be tolerated but to be loved.

If I want to do God’s will and find the meaning of life, I must love women as my self – not as less than me, not as other than me, but as my self! And in the Bible, love is not a fuzzy feeling. Love is the passionate will and practical work for another’s wellbeing. Will and work for women’s wellbeing – that is God’s will.

When Jesus commanded, “Love your neighbor as your self,” Jesus planted a time-bomb ticking in patriarchal culture. As a man, how do I want to be loved? I want to be valued and empowered to reach my full potential. So if I want any fellowship with God, I must love women like that. I must value women and support them to reach their full potential. If I do anything less or treat women as second-class citizens, I’m rejecting God’s most basic desire for my life. Neighbor-love cancels patriarchy.

In sum, the image of God and neighbor-love are the two most basic Christian reasons why men should actively and joyfully support women. Supporting women helps fulfill God’s original and ultimate will for human flourishing. Men who don’t support women oppose God’s will.

  1. How Might Men Support Women?

These two convictions energize and guide my work as a man who seeks to support women. I now want to conclude by describing what I see as the most powerful and important way that men can support women.

Men support women best by listening to women. A man’s ear is his most powerful organ, despite what we have been told.

Every human being has a deep need and desire to be heard. Listening liberates us. It enables us to discover who we are, what we love, and how we can carry our love to fulfillment in the face of confusion, adversity, and injustice. Neuroscience confirms this perspective.

Listening may seem simple and easy. But supportive listening is complex and challenging. It requires enormous effort and self-transformation. A man who has become a supportive listener for women has cultivated rare, positive power.

I believe supportive listening requires seven key elements. Men who want to support women will need to practice and grow in each one. I’m still a beginner, so I say this as a manifesto starting with myself.

Presence: The first element of supportive listening is presence. Presence means that I’m available and with you. I’m willing to go out of my way and give my time and energy to meet you in a safe space where you can speak freely.

Attention: The second element is attention. Attention means that I give myself fully to what you want to say. I’m not thinking about something else or preparing my answer. I’m actively attending to your words and nonverbal communication so I can understand you and, if necessary, ask clarifying questions.

Patience: The third element is patience. Patience means that I don’t interrupt you or assume that I already know what you’re going to say next. I allow you to reveal yourself freely, at your own pace, and to the degree that you feel comfortable. Patience may require special effort, because we often want to assert ourselves or take the conversation in another direction.

Empathy: The fourth element is empathy. We all fear revealing ourselves, whether our deep pain or our deep desire. And nothing shuts us down like judgment, which prevents us from understanding and expanding ourselves, because we hide ourselves. Empathy means that I don’t judge you with my words or my body language. I welcome you to be exactly as you are. I keep my face relaxed and my arms uncrossed. I don’t roll my eyes, sigh, or say, “Really? You did that? You think that? You want that?” Instead, I might say, “I’m with you” or “I’m listening” or I might simply keep silent. Empathic listening is presence 2.0.

Affirmation: The fifth element is affirmation. Affirmation means thanking the other person for trusting you and sharing about their life, however complicated or challenging. I express that I’m with you, that I have confidence in you, that you are strong and capable. Sometimes what we most desperately need is for someone else to believe in us.

Inquiry: The sixth element is inquiry. Inquiry means asking, “How can I be helpful?” and really meaning it. Notice that this question gives agency to the woman. It articulates availability and willingness to help. But it doesn’t assume that I have the knowledge or resources she needs. Perhaps all she needs or wants is for me to listen. Perhaps she needs or wants more support. But asking, “How can I be helpful?” allows her to define that. Only give advice when asked, and then give it briefly and constructively. The power of listening is being heard not being told.

Memory and Continuing Presence: The seventh element is memory and continuing presence. When you remember what the other tells you, you can ask thoughtful questions and continue listening next time you meet. A genuine conversation and collaboration can build, and this creates the foundation for significant support. Of course, confidentiality is essential for trust.

When men supportively listen to women, we honor the image of God. We love our neighbor as ourself. We learn how we need to be changed and grow. And we contribute to the flourishing of our society. Our homes, churches, mosques, streets, classrooms, offices, businesses, and governments are enriched.

A house built for diversity is a house where men listen to women. Thank you.

[1] God creates by speaking words of meaningful communication. In fact, God speaks as a cooperative community: “Let us create…”

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