I recently read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, and the information he wrote about 70 years ago is as relevant today as ever. I would even venture to say that we need it more now than ever. He spends several chapters on the importance of listening. If we try to convince someone of our ideas by talking, by telling them how wrong they are, all we do is help them dig in their heels. But when we take time to listen, to let others feel that they have been heard and that their opinions are valued, we can find common ground and solve problems.
Last week, I wrote about Adele Diamond and what she calls tools of the mind. My focus was on the educational benefits of free play and creativity, but just as important are the social benefits. Dr. Diamond advocates a set of educational techniques that foster listening and collaboration.
Starting with the preschool level, children can be taught to start listening to each other. Some schools do this with a paired activity, in which two children are given a picture book, and one child gets to tell the story to the other. Naturally, both children want to tell the story (ever tried to get a 4-year-old to sit and listen?). To help foster listening skills, one child is given a card with a picture of an ear on it, and the other a card with a mouth. The one with a mouth gets to tell the story, because mouths can talk. But the child with the ear must listen. The cards play an important role in fostering attentive behavior, because children know ears cannot talk, they only listen.
In many traditional cultures, a talking stick was used in the same way. The person with the stick can talk, and they can talk until they feel they have been understood by the others. As Dr. Diamond points out, the purpose of the talking stick is not to foster talking, but rather to foster attentiveness and listening in members of the audience.
Improvisational storytelling is a great activity to foster collaboration and attentiveness among older children (and adults). One individual begins the story, and the next must continue it. Only by listening to what others have said can the story be continued. These activities are also particularly fun, since they take frequent unexpected twists and turns. What better way to learn to listen and collaborate?
Listening. Being attentive. Trying to collaborate. Those are the first steps toward understanding others. We may not agree on everything (what a boring world we would live in if we did), but we can strive to understand each other better. And we may just find that we agree on more than we realized.
I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand the other person. The way in which I have worded this statement may seem strange to you. Is it necessary to permit oneself to understand another? I think it is. Our first reaction to most of the statements (which we hear from other people) is an evaluation or judgment, rather than an understanding of it. When someone expresses some feeling, attitude or belief, our tendency is almost immediately to feel "that's right," or "that's stupid," "that's abnormal," "that's unreasonable," "that's incorrect," "that's not nice." Very rarely do we permit ourselves to understand precisely what the meaning of the statement is to the other person.
Carl. R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person (Houghton Mifflin, 1961), from Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (revised edition, Pocket Books, 1981).
Understanding others is one of the fundamental components of compassion. Put yourself in someone else's shoes for a bit. Think about what they want, and take some time to listen. Does it change the way you interact with others?