Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Lost Art of Listening

Discourse over social and political issues (and thus health issues) today is fraught with fighting, name-calling, finger-pointing, and a general lack of cooperation. It is no wonder that approval ratings for Congress hit an all-time historic low this summer.

In part as a response to this tumultuous state of affairs, some of my college friends recently started an organization called Listen First Project. Their mission is simple:
"Listen First Project seeks to facilitate greater understanding, respect and cooperation by encouraging the timeless but abandoned practice of listening to each other, regardless of politics, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education or any other distinction. We believe in the power of listening to transform our discourse and change the world."
Image source: http://www.listenfirstproject.org

My dad loves to tell a story from my toddler years about the time I was chattering away on a long car trip, when suddenly it grew very quiet. Wondering why I made such an abrupt end to my soliloquy, my parents turned around to ask if I was ok. My response: "My mouth is tired."

And thus kicked off my illustrious career as a talker.

Listening has always been a challenge for me. It is not that I am uninterested in what others have to say. Quite the opposite! I get so enthusiastic, however, that I feel the need to jump in and respond to every....single....thing someone shares. When someone makes a statement, I often feel compelled to pose the arguments for the alternative position just to see if they can find any common ground with the opposition and to understand better what they think. I love engaging others and being engaged at what I perceive to be a fun and challenging level.

(Note to others: it turns out that not everyone enjoys this or feels respected and heard through this type of dialogue. Who'd'a thunk it?)

Despite my loquacious tendencies, Listen First Project has really struck a chord with me. When I think about the state of American politics, I sense that common decency has been lost somewhere along the way and is needed to bring us back on track.

Although I recognize the imperative for listening in the broader political realm, as I reflect on the above stories and personal traits embodied by my everyday experiences, I am realizing more and more that the first place listening needs to start is with me.

One thing I tried earlier this year was one week without expressing opinions - just to see if I could do it and come out alive. Most days, I failed at least once, but it made me much more aware of my own talking instincts and habits. Why do I feel the need to be heard on anything and everything? Will the world stop or people go on perpetually uneducated if I do not inform them of my views? As it turns out, the world kept turning and people kept learning and growing that week! In many ways, holding back my own voice made me more aware of the power that voice has when I do use it.

I was also called out by a friend for interrupting during a group project meeting last semester, and I really took it to heart to try to adjust this bad habit. I still struggle with interrupting, but being more conscious of it has meant that I now catch myself in the act more often, apologize, and ask the other person to please continue expressing their thoughts, because I do care.

Other places that learning to listen well has been making an appearance in my life include learning how to teach well (pedagogy) by facilitating other students in having discussions of their ideas, administering surveys with Best Babies Zone in East Oakland to understand community members' perceptions of their experiences,  and even learning in my prayer life how to sit quietly with God, rather than simply listing my requests.

Listening is one of the most important things I can do, both for my personal relationships and my professional success. In public health, understanding health concerns from the perspectives of the communities they affect, listening to community ideas for solutions, and investing in solutions that have community buy-in are often significantly more important to community thriving and successful interventions than any expertise or ideas I bring to an issue.

Learning to listen well will undoubtedly be a lifelong process for me.

I am excited to see where Listen First Project goes. To learn more about their efforts, check out the Listen First websiteFacebook page, and Twitter feed @ListenFirstProj.

Now, I would love to hear your ideas! How have you fostered the practice of listening well in public discourse, and perhaps more importantly, in your own day-to-day life?



Note: Another resource I have found helpful on this topic for those interested in the intersection of listening and faith is Richard Mouw's book, "Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World."



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