My parents gave me innumerable gifts growing up in my simple East Texas town. One of the greatest gifts, I would not recognize fully until the last decade: When listening to someone’s opinion or truth, anticipate and respectfully consider the opposing point of view before formulating your own. In other words, question everything and anyone who tells you this is THE one and only truth… and I mean anyone from religion to politics to mainstream media to classic historical accounts. Well, except when it was my mother telling me it was time to do my chores or homework… that one was firmly outside the limits of debate.
One evening when I was about 13 years old, my mother and father were discussing over dinner the day’s events, having just watched them play out on the evening news, and I casually announced that the war protesters were anti-Americans. You know things are about to get interesting when all movement and conversation simultaneously stops and all eyes are suddenly on you.
“What makes you say that, Kathy?” My father asks.
“Well, my friend’s Dad said they were.”
“Ahhh. And so you think they are anti-American?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sounded like you did know. Do you think the war protestors would agree with they are anti-American?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you ever asked a war protestor what they thought?”
“I don’t know any.”
“Well, are they anti-American?”
“Whether I think they are or they aren’t, is another discussion entirely, Kathy, and that’s an opinion I’m more than glad to share with you but that’s not really my point. My point is that you heard the opinion of some friend’s father but repeated here as your own. You’re welcome to have an opinion at our dinner table anytime and in the future, before you state it, I would strongly encourage asking a few more questions about it and maybe explore both sides of the issue before deciding just what your opinion will be on that subject.”
It was a “be careful what you wish for” moment. I don’t think I’ve stopped “questioning” everyone and everything since.
Four decades later, Tom and I have very similar political viewpoints about many, if not most, things but on a few, we are worlds apart. He has, on more than one occasion, told me he values our discussion highly for the very reason that I don’t always readily agree, that I question in ways which give him pause and force the consideration of another point of view. He enjoys that our discussions help him solidify his firmest beliefs and search out his truest answers from a broader perspective.
Then why do these conversations often end badly? He is extremely passionate about his beliefs and because I care for him and our developing relationship so much, I want to participate in the discussions he wants to have on subjects that are near and dear to his heart. And yet I know I must question thoroughly and look at the issue from multiple viewpoints before coming to any conclusion.
Last week, I may have remembered something that will help.
My Toronto consulting colleague, Peter Barry, gave a presentation on improved communication last year at the annual Academy of Dental Management Consultants meeting. In it, he spoke about how, instead of saying to his young son, Matthew, “It’s not your turn to talk!” … he opted for the more positive approach of, “Matthew, it’s your turn to listen right now.”
For some reason, that really stuck with me. I think because it makes listening sound like a privilege and gift, both for the speaker and the listener, rather than something to suffer through until it’s once again… our turn to talk. Peter also talked about the discipline of great communicators who “acknowledge before they defend” when points of view differ in a conversation.
Missing from my conversations with Tom and others was the acknowledgement of their point of view … which is different than agreeing with someone. Acknowledging is restating what you heard and understood from the other person before beginning to question or defend anything. It’s the gift of assurance they need that they have been fully heard and with that gift there is more room for exploration of other points of view.
During the same presentation, another colleague, Jody Catalanello, leaned over and whispered to me that the words “listen” and “silent” used the exact same letters, reordered.
I’m working daily on the gift of “taking my turn to listen” and trying out the discipline of “acknowledging before questioning or defending” my position.
So far, though Tom hasn’t succeeded in changing my political party lines just yet, we have had more satisfying discussions where he feels more deeply understood and I feel the freedom to explore and question.
This week, join me in my attempt to expand our ability to engage in civil debate and intelligent dialogue about the personal, professional, and yes, even the political issues, we all face. Take your turn to listen, really listen… and acknowledge and understand before you question and defend.
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“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”
~ Jimi Hendrix