AND Listen Carefully

January 25th, 2015

I recently met a number of fabulous women at an international conference held in Atlanta for women leaders of women’s colleges. What struck me was the genuine desire to connect and share, the interest in learning from each other, and the diversity of perspectives. Cultural differences lead to tremendous insights, if we are open to truly listen and hear not only the message, but also the context from which people speak.

I loved the lessons on reframing offered by a woman from Ireland, who stood out as the only non-American on a panel. And while the panel was diverse by age and race, it was the cultural component most fascinated me. The panel inspired reflections from a very accomplished leader from India about the issues faced by women in her country and what she has been doing to address them. The desire to support the panel’s information with yet more cultural insights and texture yielded increased richness to the discussion.

In another case, a Chinese speaker presented on behalf of a scheduled speaker who was unable to attend. She spent a considerable portion of her talk honoring the missing speaker, as appropriate in her culture. As Americans, we may be in a hurry to skip this step to get to the content of the message. The importance of cultural context required patience from listeners who ended up allocating more than the allotted time on the schedule for her to say what was important to her. And the participants did so respectfully.

The gift of tested patience can be the discovery of new insights about ourselves, our values, and the wisdom and values of different cultures from our own. From more limited contexts such as a family or particular work environment, we may be challenged to broaden our awareness to recognizing that many gifts and insights arrive in ways that do not fit our culturally and socially learned expectations. The gift of attending a small conference that unifies women in a particular career field of expertise, was that it reminded me how important it is in our world to get out of our own areas of familiarity if we are to ever build a more inclusive world where people feel seen, appreciated, and valued for who they are and the circumstances of their lives.

The challenge for those of us who speak the same language and live in the same country is that our listening skills are often compromised. We anticipate what others will say and often feel capable of completing their thoughts and words for them. And yet, when we do so, even in a genuine attempt to engage and be supportive, we miss the opportunity to truly hear alternative frames of reference from our own.

Listening takes focus and commitment. Hearing adds the component of openness to hearing whatever comes our way. There are three centers in the brain for hearing, one of which is focused on what we want to hear. If we are to truly celebrate the experiences of those whose lives are different from our own, we have to hear beyond what we expect to hear. And that takes conscious intention to both listen for understanding and insight, and listen to what another person has chosen to express and how she does so.

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