Practicing real listening can bring understanding in tough moments


What is the value of listening?

This may seem a peculiar question, perhaps like questioning the value of breathing. Still, there are so many moments of our breathing that go by each day without our conscious consideration that we could say we hardly even know our personal breathing patterns. What about our listening skills and habits? How about our personal patterns when we are involved in some kind of community give-and-take — be it in small groups or larger public forums or online?

I am so curious about what might change in our community’s style of civil discourse if we found ourselves really listening to each other. And would approaching a conflicted topic in a community dialogue yield different results if we arrived at meetings with a shared value of listening and learning?

There is a vulnerability that comes with listening. We set aside our own agenda for the duration of the speaker’s sharing. We listen with our natural, human nervous system reflex of empathy. We step into each other’s shoes — even if just for a moment. The payoff can come when it is our turn to speak and others return the respect they received by really listening to our story.

There are aspects of risk involved in the act of truly listening. Will I lose my own train of thought? Will the other party win the moment? Will my trust be betrayed when I set down my agenda in order to learn another person’s story about a particular topic?

If I monitor my internal reactions when I really listen to someone with whom I fundamentally disagree, I sense my heart pounding and hands sweating. However, I can choose to listen more deeply instead of withdrawing my attention to focus on my own opinions. Through this choice of action, I can take the opportunity to learn something new about the speaker and also about myself.

How would a community that truly listens change the format of its meetings? It seems that some of our current antiquated methods of organizing and running meetings are the products of outdated traditions, fear and competition. How can we really hear each other when we are given only two minutes to speak into a microphone in an atmosphere of contention? I’m inspired to imagine the untold possibilities and creative solutions that could arise from developing different community formats and habits for respectful sharing.

An ongoing grass-roots group of islanders created All Island Forum and has been working with these questions for more than three years. In that time, All Island Forum has provided opportunities for community-wide discourse on various topics in an environment of thoughtful, mutual respect. Topics have included questions such as: Vashon, what matters to you? How do you serve your community? Which causes and organizations are compelling to you? How do we navigate conflict in our groups?

Continuing forward with the deep intention to build our personal and community capacity for listening and constructive dialogue, All Island Forum is launching in April a renewed initiative focused on the listening we need to do with each other. Through both forums and round table talks, we will invite and listen to each other’s stories about our values and community-related topics that are most important for each of us.

My belief as a member of All Island Forum is that if we practice how we want to be, we will be better able to employ those skills in the toughest moments of decision-making as a community. We are in some of those moments now, and we will face many more in the years ahead. For an island community, where we live in close contact, the impact of how we relate to one another has a huge effect on the quality of our interconnected lives.

The skill of listening is as close to us as our own breathing; it just takes slowing down and paying attention. Thanks for listening — and breathing — together.

— Karen Nelson is an Embodied Life teacher and contemporary dance artist.

All Island Forum

All Island Forum will begin a new series of discussions titled “Sharing Story: Making Visible The Invisible. Compassion, Connection and Community on Vashon.” It will kick off with an event from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, at the Vashon Library. Then round-table discussions will be held the third Wednesday of each month

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