When to Speak

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When we truly stop to listen to others, we must submit to feedback, disappointment, shifting beliefs, lack of control, courage, personal growth, and the ability to change. Sometimes we must submit to the acceptance of other people’s opinions. Their opinions are not ours to control, and we don’t have to agree or share them. It’s none of our business, unless it actually is our business; then we need to say something.

How do we know when to say something? How do we discern when to be like a tree and listen? Is there a way to be an open field and a gentle rain landing and striking the subject at hand, the talker and the listener at the same time?

When people tell us their perspectives—especially around perceived problems—when should we listen with silent compassion, easing the unburdening, and when might it be a chance to step in to ask a few clarifying questions?


A friend had a concern, and asked a good question: “Is listening being complicit?”

It is easy to fall into complicity if we don’t speak. If people want you to stay silent, they keep talking and you eventually give up. This happened to me the other day: the person I was speaking with knew we had opposing opinions, but she talked a steady stream that filled the room with one voice: hers. There was no other side for this person to look at. I am still not sure what to do with that. Any ideas?

For total listening, one must be silent, absorbing, and resilient; this is respectful. But it’s wise to watch the weather patterns in order to be certain your own voice isn’t silenced by the other, if they are too pleased with their own opinions, forecasts, or interpretations.

Over time repeated conversations from the same channel become a repetitive volley, not a new spin. Don’t just hit the ball back the same way, thinking you are winning.

Some people really want help; they seek counsel. Others don’t: they want to continue the same thought patterns, beliefs, and repeated routes in their minds and bodies. They would cease to exist without these pathways, which is frightening to consider because it makes a certain self extinct. When extinct, the next step is taxidermy, and usually, no one would choose this. If you are a speaker and you want a purely uninterrupted “me story,” it’s best to talk to your plants, dog, or cat. Other people can’t be counted on to follow your script.


Do we dare interrupt a narrative—ours or others—in case it is magical thinking leading to non-magical outcomes? Listening is not complicit if after listening we are able to state our perspective.


Talking will never go out of style because it is improvisational theater, especially when you are speaking truth. If you are just repeating lines, it’s like a pre-recorded message: stale. We need a revival of healthy energized dialogue: a life-affirming sharing of ideas.

For some, speaking up is natural. But for others, it is too much trouble, and they don’t want to upset their lives. Personally, I feel like we need to address inequities—things that hurt people—even if we are not directly affected. For some of us, this can mean being uncomfortable, and that is a sacrifice.

Sometimes while listening, we hear what pleases us, and other times, we don’t. The gift is we know the person better, and what they really think. Sometimes this is disappointing. Instead of agreement, we get revelation.

Learning to have exchanges is worth it. There is a squirrel who is so enthusiastic it punches the offered peanut out of my hand, and we both watch it tumble out of reach. I go get it, pick it up, and hold it out again. This time the squirrel slows and accepts it gently. We practice give and take.

I was recently pulled into a random controversial conspiracy theory conversation with someone I don’t know. He stated his beliefs; I listened. I proposed the possibility that there was no conspiracy. The metaphorical peanut between us flew down the hall. We watched it together, metaphorically; we regrouped. I decided not to argue but to calmly speak my understanding. He looked in my direction, but no lights were on the subject, or so it appeared to me. It was as if I was from the ancient past or the far-away future; we did not share current time and place. As the exchange wrapped up, we didn’t scream at each other; we smiled, because neither one of us wanted to hurt the other.

Do we dare interrupt a narrative—ours or others—in case it is magical thinking leading to non-magical outcomes?

Listening is not complicit if after listening we are able to state our perspective.

Mary Ann Petersen

Mary Ann Petersen is a member of Eugene (Ore.) Meeting. She works as a practitioner of Chinese medicine and blogs at maryannpetersen.com. She can be reached at [email protected].

4 thoughts on “When to Speak

  1. Such a great article and lesson.
    My daughter always tells me “to listen more and run my Gator less” and she is so correct.
    I continue my struggle, to be a better listener!
    Thank you for the help you’ve given me!

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