"Everyone’s Talking, Who’s Listening?"
by Jennifer Martin
Member, CityClub's Board of Governors; Senior Officer, Grantmaking & Community Leadership, The Seattle Foundation
“Once a society loses this capacity [to dialogue], all that is left is a cacophony of voices battling it out to see who wins and who loses. There is no capacity to go deeper, to find a deeper meaning that transcends individual views and self interest. It seems reasonable to ask whether many of our deeper problems in governing ourselves today, the so-called “gridlock” and loss of mutual respect and caring might not stem from this lost capacity to talk with one another, to think together as part of a larger community.” - Peter M. Senge, in “A New View of Institutional Leadership” in Reflections on Leadership
I came across this quote the other day and was struck by how well Peter Senge’s comments from more than 15 years ago still capture what is going on today. We have in many ways lost our ability to have constructive conversations – most obviously on the national stage, but even in our local communities and sometimes in our day-to-day lives. Although the opportunities for sharing information have exploded, it’s almost mind-numbing as we are battered with tweets, blogs, likes, e-mails, videos, etc. We may think we’re getting our point across or “communicating,” but how much are we really learning from one another?
In order to communicate in ways that solve tough problems and build a sense of community, we have to be able to understand one another and our different ideas and beliefs. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for people to reinforce their views simply by subscribing to listservs and media sources that align with what they already believe to be true. That’s comfortable and reassuring, but there is no growth or expansion of perspective. No one person has all the answers and only through talking with one another and really listening to what each other is saying will we find new approaches that actually work in our community.
And while it seems our society has cornered the market on talking, we haven’t quite nailed the listening part. There is no lack of training on how to communicate effectively, but it’s predominantly about how to successfully get your message across to others, whether through public speaking or influential writing. The art of listening often takes a back seat even though it’s touted as an important skill. It’s not just hearing the words someone else is saying, but it’s also seeking to understand. One useful technique is called “Active Listening” and is something all of us could try doing more often.
When you actively listen, you are completely focused on what the other person is saying and not half-listening (as you mentally craft a response even before the person finishes talking). Active listening means asking clarifying questions and repeating what you heard in order to make sure you really understand. You don’t have to agree with the other person’s views, you just need to make sure you aren’t jumping to conclusions or projecting your own experience onto what they are saying. It doesn’t come easily and is something we have to practice, but it is time well spent. Because when we really understand where the other person is coming from, then there is an opportunity to find common ground or creative ideas that couldn’t be discovered by just one person or like-minded group. We have too many issues in our community and world to not seek to understand one another. And if everyone truly listened more, maybe we wouldn’t have to talk so much or so loud in order to feel heard.