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Photo by Kristoffer Trolle

By Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

My high school chemistry teacher ribbed me constantly about the one thing I thought teachers should never complain about: I was, according to her, too quiet.

She wasn’t referring to my conversational abilities or my participation in class. I was just generally too quiet, which in her mind meant too serious and dull. She told me I needed to have more fun, to let loose. She got on my case when I didn’t have any plans for the weekend or wasn’t planning to attend a school dance (my parents didn’t allow me to).

My teacher and classmates seemed to find her teasing hilarious. I found it upsetting — but of course I was too polite and respectful to tell her so. And, as I struggled through my awkward adolescent years, I couldn’t help wondering if there was something wrong with me.

As an adult, I finally understood what it meant to be introverted — and I really disliked being that way. It seemed like I was respected less and appreciated less, especially in professional settings, because I spoke up less. I was seen as passive, inarticulate, and without strong opinions.

As Susan Cain records in her bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, this is the challenge that many introverts in the U.S. face. We live in a society in which the Extrovert Ideal dominates. Those who talk more, and talk faster and more aggressively are seen “as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends.” Introverts are stigmatized as just the opposite.

On top of all this, I felt like I was living proof of the stereotypically passive Asian female. This bothered me to no end, but I just couldn’t shake off the reality of who I was.

But a strange thing happened as the years went on, as my path crossed with more and more people. I noticed that others tended to open up to me, often with very little prompting. Colleagues, acquaintances, and even strangers would look into my eyes and unload their burdens. Over and over again, I was entrusted with stories of worry, heartbreak, betrayal, grief, and acute suffering from people who were clearly in need of a friend.

Interactions that I would begin with a simple “How are you?” or “Tell me more about that” would often end with tears, hugs, and a heartfelt “Thank you for listening.”

There was, I discovered, a secret power in being quiet, one which almost all introverts have: the power of listening.

In a world in which many are clambering to make their voices heard, there are, it seems, too few of us who simply stop and listen. I have been amazed at the number of people around me who seem to be starving to be heard, to have the time and space to share the entirety of their stories, to have someone be their friend through nothing more than attentive quiet.

I have gone through many seasons in which I tried to force myself to be more social, packing my calendar with appointments and pressuring myself to put myself out there more. These aren’t bad things in and of themselves, but they weren’t right for me. I became exhausted trying to live up to the Extrovert Ideal and lost sight of the valuable gifts that I could provide.

I might not ever be the loudest person in the room, but I can listen closely to both the substance and the tone of what others share. I can ask good questions. I can get to know them on a deep and meaningful level. I can offer heartfelt affirmation and counsel.

I can, in short, communicate to others that I value them through my willingness to hear them out.

The act of active, attentive listening is one of the most powerful tools I know of to build relationships and to grow trust. It is also an act of service, one that keeps me humble and deeply connected to others. Listening begets empathy and compassion, and crowds out judgment and self-righteousness. As the apostle James instructs us, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…” (1:19b).

These days it’s still pretty common for me to find myself in rooms in which the loudest voices seem to prevail. I can’t help but feel daunted in such situations, worrying about how I am perceived or what I am contributing.

But then I remember something my former high school English teacher told me: After she had me as a student, she actually changed her participation requirement for future classes. She remembers my speaking up only about four times in class (I remember it being far more than four times!), but she found each of those contributions particularly insightful and memorable. As a result, she decided to grade future students not on the number of times they spoke but on the substance of what they said.

Being quiet isn’t, it turns out, just a recipe to being boring and forgettable. When I am willing to listen, to truly understand, and to speak only when I have something meaningful to say, I can serve others in a meaningful way. This way of interacting is very different from the social skills that extroverts utilize, but it is a beautiful way to build up those around us.

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is the author of a forthcoming book on how to balance marriage, family, and entrepreneurship (Hachette Center Street, November 2017). She is a columnist for Inc.com and regular contributor to Christianity Today and The Well. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, BlogHer, RELEVANT, and more than a dozen other publications. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the U.S., Asia, and Africa. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. Find her online at www.chengtozun.com or on Twitter @dorcas_ct.

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Photo by Leonard J Matthews

By Maria Liu Wong

Empathy is the ability to be aware of the feelings and needs of others. It is seeing and understanding from the point of view of another. It involves not only understanding others, but being able to develop others, to serve them, to leverage diversity, and to be politically aware, as Daniel Goleman suggests in the context of emotional intelligence. Distinct from sympathy — which it is often confused with and involves instead feeling compassion for another — empathy is more personal, and requires stepping into the shoes of another. (more…)

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Photo by Mia Severson

By Wendy Choy-Chan

I still remember it was a great relief for me when I first read about empathy. I am not a person of many words, so I always felt inadequate when I couldn’t offer any brilliant solutions to the ones pouring out their problems and heartaches in front of me. Once I realized that what they really needed was someone to be present with them and to listen to them, I stopped trying to come up with clever words or ideas to solve their problems. (more…)

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