Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Listening and Dialog

What is the difference between listening to listen and listening as part of dialog? I had not given much thought to this, other than intuitively knowing there's a difference, until recently. At William Penn House a few weeks ago, we hosted two Navy Midshipmen. In announcing this event, it was stated that "these students will be here to talk about their dreams for the world, selection of service as a vehicle for pursuing this dream, and what it means to be of service. We look forward to this being an evening for pacifists and people committed to a world without war to listen with appreciative ears and to find common ground."

By referring to their commitment as "service", a listserve became energetically engaged in questioning why we were doing this event, that what these young men do is not "service" but "murder", and that we should give equal time to real service (neglecting to notice that just about all we do at William Penn House is service). It was interesting to see "pacifists" going after like-minded people, and to observe that, while these Navy Midshipmen were able to answer questions clearly about why they have made the commitments they have made and the struggles and dilemmas of these choices, the pacifists struggled with articulating their "hard" questions and making connections between what they/we are against and what we are for. I could go on about many things, but perhaps most simplistically, I have been pondering what it is to listen as an exercise vs. listening as part of a dialog.

Here are some thoughts:
Neurologically, listening/observing is what some call an "alpha" brain activity, where the rear hemisphere of the brain is engaged, but what is going on is just letting things enter. Imagine walking through the woods as part of a meditative exercise in noticing what is going on, vs. thinking about work, what is around the corner, or some other mental activity that takes one out of the moment. This is the alpha activity, whereas "beta" activity is that latter part - thinking of something next. To just be present, to listen, is really a discipline in being in the moment. It does not mean to not think, but to instead let information fully enter for discernment, rather than discern what is allowed in. The blocks to this are emotions - anger, fear, etc. - and too much thinking that looks for where the speaker is "wrong" (or a fear that I am wrong).

In dialog, I suspect that we are always listening with one foot in the moment, and the other in "what am I going to say next?", which interferes with being fully present to the other. This can be especially challenging when we have firmly held beliefs (in this case, about the military). Unfortunately, when we demonize things like the military, we tend to develop blindspots about many things, including that we might be complicit in the need for the military to protect us.

Are there things we can do to handle this better? In my experience, Appreciative Inquiry has been a good tool. Quite simply, to learn to listen fully, with appreciative ears, has been helpful. It does not mean that I simply accept all that is being said, but for the moment my job is to listen and to appreciate. I can later go back, more fully informed, and look at things more deeply, exploring where my own values lie on issues. I think it adds to integrity. It certainly beats "pacifists" creating conflict among like-minded people.


Stuart said...

We need to know what is in the hearts of people we think we don't agree with. Understanding or at least the the good will to listen and set aside our prejudgments are keys to living peacefully.

Thanks for your writing on listening.

Susanna said...

Very timely commentary as we observe a National Day of Listening

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

RE Stuart - I agree with the sentiments, but I am always wary of thinking I know what is in others' hearts. I'm not always sure of my own. Seeking to understand is a safer ground for me, rather than thinking I do understand.

Stuart said...

RE Brad, Thank you for your faithful eldering; it is spot on!