LISTENING (as we do it) IS OVERRATED
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman is the Founder & President of Arrupe Virtual
Folks, we have a listening problem. This has been written about ad nauseum in recent years, and there is plenty of blame to go around as to why. However, through a series of experiences and reflections this summer, I’d like to add the following thoughts to the conversation.
It all started in June when reading Fr. Bill McCormick’s poignant article The Biden Communion debate shows the exhaustion of the U.S. church. We’re all familiar with the debate in question, and the article does a masterful job of exploring the blurring of Catholicism and the combative nature of politics in America, stating, “These are symptoms of exhaustion. Yes, this conflict, like others, involved frenetic activity, but that is only a sign of the sterility of the ritual. The ferocity of debates in the U.S. Catholic Church is a sign that we are desperately trapped in intellectual ruts. Our brains have become re-wired by years of futile conflict, and there is no obvious way out. We are simply habituated to react, and it would take tremendous energy and time to change, both of which we lack.”
A few days later, a second article crossed my desk, College graduates lack preparation in the skill most valued by employers - collaboration. The crux of the article states that, not only do recent graduates lack the teamwork “skill,” half of all students have negative views toward their team-based class projects and other collaborative learning experiences. They’re not good at collaboration AND they don’t like it. (Though this claim is limited to recent graduates, my sense is that the same sentiments exist across a broader distribution of workers.)
During the same timeframe, I was preparing for and participating in an international online conference of Jesuit school educators and leaders. The themes of this global colloquium were educating for faith, depth, reconciliation, and global citizenship. The small group engagement technique utilized was designed for spiritual conversation - a process that, among other things, encouraged participants to share openly, to suspend judgment, and to value reflection. Though the presentations and conversations were very rich and personally meaningful, a part of me thought, “Is that it? Where is this leading us? There doesn’t seem to be any concrete actionables.”
Weeks later, Jesuit Schools Network Executive Director Fr. Bob Reiser and I met to discuss various aspects of the conference. Through the course of conversation he introduced me to Theory U, a leadership and change management method that incorporates a process for dialogue similar to that of the previously mentioned spiritual conversations. At its core, Theory U explores the interiority of systems, noting that, “We rarely pay attention to the deeper root condition: the source and interior condition from which we operate.” While this is true of systems, it is also true of people, and this is where the problem lies.
We live through our senses. From seeing to feeling, our senses enable us to internalize external stimuli. The more we internalize, the better we’re able to interact with the world around us. Because our senses are largely working every minute of every day, we have internalized enough stimuli to operate 99.9% of our lives with great efficiency and hardly a thought.
While our senses are innate, we know that we can also develop them through focused attention and practice. Think, for instance, of a master sommelier keenly developing her sense of taste and smell over years of training, or a precocious 7 year old who loves Where’s Waldo and practices so much that he can find Waldo nearly instantly upon seeing a new puzzle. In this way, senses are internalization skills. The more we develop these skills, the better we are at making sense of our surroundings. We teach these skills accordingly, and reward systems exist to reinforce the value society places on their development.
Except for hearing - or at least the all-important subset of hearing, listening. Listening is the hearing skill we actively develop over our lifetime, and it is so important to our communal existence that no skill gets more attention. The issue is that the ways in which we teach and reward listening rarely focus on internalization. We frame listening as an externalization skill. When we are young, we equate proper listening to following directions. As we age, the focus turns to knowledge acquisition (often for the short term), the reward for which is good grades. Finally, we begin to seek understanding, but not for the purpose of internalization. Rather, we seek understanding as a means of gaining advantage. Whether it’s sales training, law school, marketing, journalism, or more, we learn to listen with an agenda. In fact those who get really good at listening are able to tease out and exploit others’ internalizations.
Even leadership, one of our most treasured characteristics, is often taught from an agenda-based perspective. While this brand of leadership most certainly involves the internalization of narratives that ultimately leads to one taking a stand and “having one’s voice heard,” it can also be rigid, uncompromising, and ego-centric - leaving little room for the hard work of listening and dialogue. When was the last time you heard a role model or a commencement speaker tell you to demonstrate humility, to show deference, or to follow along rather than to be bold, blaze your own path, and to never yield?
In short, we’ve been building the skill of listening with great precision and effectiveness. It’s just the wrong kind of listening. It’s incomplete.
Catholic education’s humanist approach affords us the opportunity to promote a different listening narrative. In fact, educating for faith, depth, reconciliation, and global citizenship compels it. Theory U suggests that generative change requires listening with an open mind, an open heart, and, perhaps most importantly, an open will. An open mind enables us to consider new and conflicting information. An open heart is empathic, enabling us to see and acknowledge the viewpoints of others. And an open will enables movement. This is an internalized brand of listening that recognizes that we are always in motion. Even when we wish to remain in a fixed position, time is passing - the journey continues.
As the spiritual conversations exercise referenced above most humbly reminded me, action and change don’t always need to be the objective of dialogue. Sometimes listening and being heard are enough. Dialogue doesn’t require either party to change their mind; it just requires that we be open to the prospect that our minds can be changed - and with it, our hearts and will as well.
vol 4 issue 1