Day of Listening

Nov 25th, 2008

By Louise Smith, Crossroads — read the original blog posting here.

This Friday is a National Day of Listening. It is sponsored by StoryCorps and is intended to be a day when we gather stories from family members and friends. I like this idea. For two years, I had a subtext at the theater in all of my classes. It was called The Listening Project and was designed to foster listening skills in students, in the culture of the campus and in myself. The first year, students set up booths all over campus and collected stories from community members. We used them as our script in a performance that I hoped would be seen by President Steve Lawry, among others. He did not show up, but the shows were well-attended and well received. The next year, Migiwa Orimo worked with the Collaboration, Creation and Performance class. We did installations and events all term, including a cabaret, a real time interactive performance in town and installations throughout campus at homecoming. I loved these projects and am very proud of them, not just because I felt the art was good but because I felt the subject was so important and close to my heart.

I am a New Yorker by birth and in my family and social context back home, the idea of waiting until someone finished a sentence was anathema. We always interrupted each other. I saw it as a sign of enthusiasm and connection to what the other person was saying. We built on each others’ ideas rapidly and fluidly. That was on a good day. When I came to Antioch, I encountered another attitude about the art of interruption: that it was oppressive to the speaker, that it indicated an attitude of superiority. I was often shamed by the words :”Can you let me finish please?” in meetings and by students. I had not heard these words growing up. It was assumed you spoke when you felt the impulse. I began to recognize that listening is a learned skill and that our family experiences and regional backgrounds may not have fostered the best methods.
My assumption about the National Day of Listening is that it is intended to be a reminder to us to listen well to each other, to take the time to really hear the story of our lives as it speaks itself in others and to practice the art of listening with full intention so that we might get better at it. In the spirit of National Day of Listening, I have some ideas that help me stay on track that I would like to pass on. These are useful particularly in meetings, where we can tend to have a “my turn” mentality and get somewhat redundant, defensive, riled up etc.. They come from a variety of sources, most recently Urban Bushwomen in NYC.

1. WAIT: Why Am I Talking? This is a good question to ask yourself if you find you are taking up a lot of the airwaves in a group of people. Is it to impress, to think things through, to assert your authority? Take time to jot down what you want to say in as brief and direct way you can, then raise your hand.
2. WAINT: Why Am I Not Talking? Another question if it is just the opposite in a meeting. If everybody else is doing the heavy lifting problem solving are you not talking because you are alienated, clueless, or trying to work on really hearing what is being said.
3. AIR: Affirm, Inquire, Reflect: These are some words that help when you are having a difficult conversation. Affirming where the person is coming from helps to diffuse tension. Inquiring exactly what this person is trying to get across helps to get some clarity before you jump to conclusions. Reflecting helps after you have listened. You check out if you have heard it right.
4. Listen to My Body Talk: Body language is a huge part of communication. If we say we are listening but our focus is elsewhere, or we are physically closed off or commenting silently with gestures or facial expressions we send a mixed signal.
5. Listen with the Heart: Recognizing that every time someone speaks it is a risk that they are taking and having compassion for that individual can take you far in this practice. Being aware of your breath and really looking at the person is a gift you can give them.

Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.
-Cuban Proverb

Happy Colonial Holiday to all and thanks for listening!