Thursday, September 24, 2009

Active listening is foundational to a civil society

What’s truly hopeful is that we have the means to evoke more goodness from one another. I have witnessed the astonishing power of good listening and healing available when someone gives voice to her experience. I have also learned that when we begin listening to each other, and when we talk about things that matter to us, the world begins to change.    –Margaret Wheatley, Turning to One Another

This quote takes me back to a paper I wrote during my senior year at IU. It’s somewhere in a dusty cardboard box in my basement now, but I recall the topic was about listening – listening as a means to facililtate change. Looking back, I think I was on to something. As a 22-year old, I didn’t think I had much wisdom to offer, although I think I got an A on my paper.

Current events have me once again thinking about listening, and how we don’t do it well in our culture. Listening is fundamental to a civil society, and one could argue that the lack of listening has reached a crisis level in our country.

Listening is something that is demanded of children, yet we forget there is a difference between merely hearing and truly listening. Listening is a learned skill.

Learning to listen is reinforced in one of the earliest places of learning, the classroom. Why is our state considering beefing up subject matter training for teachers when they really need more support in how to facilitate the learning that occurs in their classrooms?

Striving for more and more expertise is an investment in mastery that isn’t necessary. What good would the enhanced subject material do for students don’t know how to listen well? Wouldn’t learners be better served by a teacher who is invested in providing an environment where these students can take more responsibility for their own learning?

We are a resource-rich nation. Placing the expert label on teachers sets up a dangerous model for learners to always be searching outside of themselves for the answers.

This is what is playing out in our country right now, and it isn’t working.

I spent several months earlier this year in a leadership training group where we practiced active listening. Our sessions took place in circles, where each individual could see the others, face-to-face. There’s something about sitting in a circle that provides better acoustics for listening. Perhaps it is because there are no corners. The leader sat in the circle and participated with the rest of the group rather than professing to be an expert on the subject matter (although she was the creator of the program).

Each voice was valued equally in this circular setting. The introverts had equal opportunity to share with the extraverts. We reflected listening to one another by recording powerful “readback” lines from one another’s writing and sharing these lines with the group. What a wonderful feeling it is to be listened to in this way. And it is a great way to lift up themes coming from the group for further exploration.

I facilitate writing workshops using this model. It is a joy to witness the rapid improvement in confidence, voice, and writing ability in young writers over the course of even a single session. I believe this is a direct result of the active listening we practice.

Perhaps this is an over-simplification of a complex issue. Yet it is true that listening is foundational to a civil society. Try a simple experiment today. When having a conversation, repeat back one phrase to the person who spoke it. Begin with “So I hear you saying…” Don’t interpret. Just repeat what you heard. 

See what happens.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Interesting messages received along the journey home

by Kim Evans

I’m driving home from a fun-filled Labor Day weekend with family in Chicago. The dome light shines on my page. Wind rushes through the moon roof. A semi-truck roars by me on the passenger side.

“Winds of Change.” I see these words pass by on a billboard along the interstate. At night billboards appear like illuminated messages floating through space. Signs are everywhere. I recently saw a sign that read “A Call to Consciousness” outside a church when I was in the process of deciding to take a step into a new chapter of my life. And now I notice a yellow road sign that reads “Watch For Ice on Bridges.”

Winds of Change ... A Call to Consciousness ... Watch For Ice on Bridges .

My thoughts go to images of angry people at town hall meetings. One such photograph was on the front page of this newspaper. I am disturbed by those who are being influenced by the fear mongering, allowing themselves to be manipulated without learning the facts. It’s so much easier to let others do the thinking. I wish people would suspend judgment and emotion long enough to do some research, then engage in a civilized exchange of ideas.

Emotions are so high right now. Emotions cloud thinking. It is painful to watch people rage at one another. And now with electronic communications, it is too easy to push the send button and spread negativity to others, even those in one’s own family, one’s own flesh and blood.

Winds of Change ... A Call to Consciousness ... Watch For Ice on Bridges .

This late night drive continues to activate the right side of my brain. The color red transports me back to the scene in the tailgate area before the IU football game last Thursday. We park a few blocks south of 17th Street, and are treated to a walk through a sea of drunken college students. I’m a little stunned at this public display; if this type of consumption must occur, isn’t it best limited to private residences and bars?

My 11-year-old daughter points to a group of red T-shirt-clad young men and women preparing to drink beer from a tube attached to a funnel. She asks “What’s that, Mom?” I don’t want to lie to her; nor do I want to ignore her question. So I respond, “That’s called a beer bong, honey. It allows someone to drink a whole bunch of beer really fast, basically by-passing the process of swallowing, and pouring it straight into their stomach.” I tell it like it is. She cringes.

I draw a parallel between beer bong consumption and fear-mongering. They both recklessly bypass the intended channels of consumption. No swallowing of beer. No examination of facts. Straight to the stomach. Instant gratification is the quickest way to the desired effects. A jolt into an altered state of consciousness is so much easier than a thoughtful one.

It’s getting late. We leave during the third quarter of the football game, and pass a group of red-eyed students staggering into Gate 14. I wonder if they will be able to navigate the stairs. Walking south of 17th Street again, we pass the lawn littered with empty Natural Light cases, beer cans and bottles. A uniformed crew appears to be preparing to clean up the mess left behind. There is no connection between the individuals who participated in the mass consumption and the clean-up of their mess.

Winds of Change ... Call to Consciousness ... Watch For Ice on Bridges .

Sometimes messages come from interesting places.

This column appears in the 9/10/09 issue of the Herald-Times newspaper, Bloomington, IN