Another Way to Listen

National events during this difficult year evidence a need for better models of civil dialogue and respectful communication to solve the complicated issues we face. How can each of us reach across the aisle to shift the direction of the widening divide? As educators who teach by example, how can we think critically about the challenges before us and practice effective communication for synergistic collaboration to achieve creative solutions?  

I have learned a lot about this while participating in the BYU ARTS Partnership Native American Curriculum Initiative (NACI). NACI works across various cultures, belief systems, and values. It offers a model for improving relationships that can lead to dialogue for positive solutions between individuals and various groups. The strategy is to start with a question, then to listen, and respect the answers given. The initiative began by posing this question to the leaders of Utah’s Native American tribes: “What would you like the children of Utah to know about your tribe?” This inquiry invited a culture of listening, opened previously unaccessed channels of communication, and led to shared understanding. Respecting an answer of “no,” while uncovering and negotiating solutions, built trust. The collaborative work that has been accomplished is currently impacting education in meaningful ways with benefits extending beyond the classroom to families and communities.

Likewise, a similar question can be asked in every classroom to instigate a culture of trust and an opportunity to honor each individual: “What would you like me to know about you to help me be your teacher?” Responses to this question reveal how individuals see themselves and uncover shared values. The question respectfully invites the students to articulate their needs and describe how they would like to be treated. Reflection on this information informs choices on both sides that improve relationships and invite collaboration towards mutually beneficial goals for student success.

I believe this question can improve all of our relationships. Ask those around you, “What would you like me to know about you to help me be your colleague, neighbor, friend, sibling, parent, etc.?” The holidays provide an opportunity to improve relationships: now is a good time to practice patience and deep listening that goes beyond words to observation, reflection, and empathy.

A Lesson from the Navajo Tradition

In the Navajo tradition, when a group of people gather, the customary introductions include two statements: I am born in the lineage of my mother and I am born for the lineage of my father. When Brenda Beyal, Navajo Diné and NACI coordinator, introduces herself she says, ” I am born into the Salt Clan [her mother’s clan] and born for the Towering House people [her father’s clan].” This shares her roots and invites connections to be made with others of the same lineage. Instant friends are made upon introduction as people associate her lineage with their own story.

Similarly, in my teaching, I invite students to create drawings or a short dance composition for the following sentence frames: I come from…. I move toward or seek….

My response to these frames is, “I come from the desert and the mountains, from people who work hard and have done hard things. I move toward kindness and ideas that peak my curiosity. I seek solutions that propel learning and growth for the development of individuals.” Over the years I have witnessed the dances and drawings of many children and adults allowing me to understand unspoken pieces of their stories and connect with them, even in brief encounters at single workshops. Occasionally, those brief connections have been seeds for lifelong friendships.

Listening Through Observation and Reflection

As we gather virtually or face-to-face with students, colleagues, friends or family, we can participate with this question in our heart to give us a new way to listen and observe others. Ask yourself, what can I learn through observing and reflecting on the behavior and responses of others? Let what you notice inform questions you may want to ask people to get to know them better. Never jump to conclusions about the meaning of what you observe, but allow your perceptions to ignite your compassion and empathy, to either seek understanding or keep a respectful distance to provide safety and support.

Managing Group Settings

Relationships start with creating safety and building trust. In group gatherings, put people at ease in playful, non-competitive or low stakes activities. Spend time together telling stories, dancing, singing, drawing, creating with clay, or playing games such as charades—all of these activities can be done online or in person. Take time to describe or model the activity so everyone understands how to participate. Let go of your expectations and allow the spontaneity of the moment to reveal the unknown. 

As conversations emerge (and they will!), notice indicators of each person’s comfort level. When you feel uncomfortable with a topic, smile and excuse yourself from the conversation and allow others the same option. Think ahead and select topics that maintain relationships and increase contentment. When we are familiar with people, it is easy to assume the existence of shared values, causing us to overlook differing perspectives or minimize distinctive nuances of a similar opinion. Familiarity can actually inhibit our ability to see people clearly. Listen by reading between the lines. Below are some ideas that may help.

  • When you ask, “How are you?” listen for the real answer. 
  • Acknowledge your own empathy and respond with kindness. 
  • Develop an awareness of nuances in meaning by asking relevant follow up questions.
  • Clarify meaning as needed with reflective listening.
  • Listen to and observe the responses of others.
  • Make conscious choices to respond and relate to each individual.
  • Honor the choices of others as well as your own choices.
  • Accept “no” for an answer without coercion or manipulation.
  • Offer “no” for an answer when appropriate.
  • Understand that quiet observation is a form of participation.
  • Invite conversations that honor the unique perspective of each individual.
  • Listen and observe some more.
  • Share how you feel over what you think.
  • Acknowledge the differences and unique nature of each individual.
  • Cultivate common ground by discovering shared values and connections.

This COVID-19 environment calls on us to discover creative solutions for building relationships and connecting with others in our teaching and at home. How can you respond to the current environment with innovation? How can you get to know your students, colleagues, and others in your life in new and previously unimagined ways? I believe we can work together to realize innovative solutions to make the world a better place, one conversation at a time.  Share your ideas and suggestions in the comments below! Tell us what works for you.

Cally Flox is the founding director of the BYU ARTS Partnership and lead author of A Teacher’s Guide to Resilience Through the Arts. To support teachers with the challenges of teaching in a COVID environment, Cally Flox hosts an online workshop titled Resilience for Teachers: Learning to Thrive Instead of Survive. Bi-weekly sessions will begin again in January. Click here if you’d like to provide input on the selected day and time.

Comments (2)
  • We need to be creative this year for our family party due to COVID. I am creating our 4 generation family Christmas party on zoom. I set up zoom on my parents i-pad, (that is a whole story). I created a padlet of funny questions for everyone to complete before the party, a google folder for everyone add their favorite old photos to share. I sent an agenda of actives including breakout groups for small discussions just like at a live party. There are 3 prizes for the funniest or most interesting story of the night. We will vote at the end of the party. The stories on the padlet count as well as any shared at the party. The young people in my family have responded with excitement, the children as well, many of whom will join on their own device. It will certainly be our most unique party ever. Most importantly I hope we keep the tradition of re-connecting with each other and having fun together.

  • It is amazing what happens when we intentionally shift our primary focus from being understood to understanding first. That is not to say we don’t ever seek to be understood–this is also an essential part of healthy relationships. But when we suspend our interest in every other objective first, and let understanding deeply be our priority, the results can be amazing.

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