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frame of reference

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A Different Way of Listening

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When we listen, we tend to listen for something—something to respond to. We listen for an idea we like or dislike, or an experience we can relate to. We listen to provide support and affirmation. We listen for the hook that either engages us and draws us in, or repels us and pushes us back. We listen ready to react.

This kind of listening makes sense in a formal debate, in which two sides are arguing opposing points and listening for weaknesses and opportunities in the statements of the other side. But such an approach constrains real dialogue, where the intent is to create connection and expand understanding.

We naturally process what we hear through our own framing and experiences. We hear what is important to us and ignore that which does not resonate. It is like being given a picture and cropping out what is irrelevant—to us. But it might be essential to the speaker.

A perfect example is when Mary Kissel of the Wall Street Journal interviewed Robert Murray of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a conservative think-tank based in Alberta, shortly after Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada in October 2015. She kept framing her questions in terms of taxes even though he repeatedly replied that this election was more about values. They were like ships passing in the night—purportedly in the same conversation, but actually not. Her questions were entirely through her frame of reference, which yielded little of value. If she had engaged in more open inquiry (“What do you mean?”) it would have offered greater insights.

Other examples are from our everyday lives, when talking with friends or colleagues. We quickly exclaim: “I know just what you mean!” when in reality we may not fully understand. Or we try to offer comfort for emotional distress by putting it in a different context (“It’s not really that bad; look at it this way…”). Instead, we can simply say: “You are sad about “x” situation; what does that mean for you?”

Jesper Juul, a Danish child-development specialist, makes this same point in reference to children’s drawings. When we say to a child: “What a beautiful/cool picture you have drawn!” we are unconsciously judging both the picture and the child’s capabilities. Instead, Juul suggests that we acknowledge the picture and ask neutral questions: “I see you have drawn a picture. Tell me about it; what is it about?” Not only is this what every child needs to hear; it is what every one of us needs to hear. We want someone to simply hold the space so we can express ourselves from the context we inhabit.

Transformative listening means having an awareness of the frame of reference we bring to the table, and the humility to set it aside temporarily. It means cultivating openness and inquiry, sitting with ambiguity, and letting clarity come slowly. While this approach may not be relevant to every situation, it is applicable to many. It transforms the meaning and trajectory of an interaction and gives rise to new understanding.

I often find it challenging to listen this way because I love to jump in with my thoughts and perspective, but it gets easier with practice. I keep at it because it gives me more interesting conversations. Try it and let me know what you think.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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The Quest for Purity

Many journalists have written about outrage being the emotion du jour – or as Hugh Hewitt puts it, our current addiction. A few months ago, he wrote:

“…like the human pulse, it is nowadays a sign of life. Not to be outraged is to be almost disqualified in the eyes of many from being a participant in politics, even though the perpetually outraged fall across the political spectrum. Not only can they not imagine anyone not being outraged, they also can’t imagine any kind of outrage save their own.”

There are certainly plenty of reasons to be outraged. But being in a constant state of elevated anger, from one issue to the next, is ultimately self-defeating. It drives us into binary thinking not only about issues, but about people. (You are with us or against us.) And once in that space, we lose our capacity to distinguish nuance, texture, and difference; we shrink the gray zone, which is where we need to be operating; and most importantly, we squander the opportunity to gather new insights, expand our understanding, and build a viable, inclusive path forward.

Outrage can be valuable, when used judiciously. But when it is always turned on, it seems to bring forth a disquieting quest for purity. There is a growing intolerance of anyone whose thoughts, actions, and statements do not meet our criteria, as evaluated through our own lens. We don’t make room for the possibility that we may have misinterpreted someone, or not fully understood the multi-layered and complex context from which that person was speaking.

On a recent radio program, the left-leaning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described an experience of being misinterpreted by those within her own political tribe, and being taken down publicly. She said: “The Left eat their own…” and then commented further on the intolerance of perceived variances in thinking.

Two weeks later, on a different radio program titled “Words You Can’t Say,” I heard the same statement made on the Right, by Dodie Horton, a Republican state senator. She said: “I was amazed to find that Republicans eat their own.”

In both cases, it had to do with language and a misinterpretation of a particular choice of words. In both cases, these people were hounded and intimidated for an interpretation that was imposed on them.

There is a disturbing blindness to this quest for purity. When we insist on processing what we hear through our own frame of reference, without considering and exploring the frame of the other, we miss complexity, nuance, and possibilities for creative solutions. In our well-meaning desire to elevate and improve our society, we inadvertently kill off that which will help it grow.

So, the next time someone says something that offends you, or that you find discordant in some way, ask an open-ended question before making a statement. It is harder to do than you think, because we are so used to responding with a statement (and often, a judgment).

Until and unless we develop the skill to explore someone else’s context in all its layers of complexity, we will miss one opportunity after another to broaden our understanding of the world we live in, and to expand our capacity to effect positive change for all.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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