The Art of Listening

2010-2011 has been the year of “Partners in Health” at GFA, beginning with Ophelia Dahl as our Convocation Speaker and concluding with Dr. Joia Mukherjee as our spring Coyle scholar. Several common themes emerged such as the importance of questioning and listening, especially when talking with those whom you are trying to help. Dr. Mukherjee spoke of learning the most when she listened to poor women in the United States; first of all because English was her native language, but also because she learned which questions to ask to elicit the information that was truly helpful. Similarly, once she learned Creole, she could interact with the people of Haiti to understand what they really needed, rather than acting from her own preconceived ideas.

GFA's Coyle Scholar, Dr. Joia Mukherjee

In his book The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner writes about seven essential skills for the 21st century. He tells of a meeting with Clay Parker, the CEO of a large company. Tony Wagner asked Mr. Parker about what skills he looks for when interviewing young people as potential employees. Expecting a list of technical skills, Wagner was beyond surprised when the answer came back, “First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions….The ability to ask the right questions is the single most important skill, and I want people who can then engage in good discussion.”

In his remarkable book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, William Dalrymple chronicles the lives of nine holy men and women he meets while traveling throughout India. Dalrymple recounts each life and how it represents a different form of devotion or religious path. In this book, one can see that Dalyrmple talked extensively with each of the nine people, interviewed, questioned, listened and listened some more. Because of his thoughtful investigation, he was able to write without judgment or condescension and beautifully convey the mysticism and the reality of these lives.

Here at GFA recently, we interviewed the “Bolton Ladies.” These are women, now in their seventies and eighties, who graduated from Ms Bolton’s school, which was the original Greens Farms Academy. Taking the time to ask the right questions and discern when and where to probe, uncovered a wealth of stories and helped us understand what was meaningful and important to these women in the context of the years they were at the school.

They talked of their friendships, classes, and teachers. They reminisced about Ms Laycock racing around the field hockey field in her high heels waving an old hockey stick, exhorting them to whap the ball. They talked about how they valued being known and not able to hide – and also of the school being so short of space that they studied in the bath tub of the old house. They talked of what they valued about their education, how they learned how to write and were well prepared for their college years, and many remembered being driven toward college and a career when a lot of women of their generation were not, and how very grateful they are for this today.

Ophelia Dahl, speaking at GFA's convocation, September '10

William Dalyrymple, Ophelia Dahl and Joia Mukherjee all took the time in their lives and travels to engage in the delicate dance of question and answer which, without prying or being invasive, elicited the material each sought, and by so doing, found even more meaning in their own lives. They also discovered that it is as important to pay attention, not only to the spoken word, but to the sub text, the body language, the hidden meaning. Finally, they were able to draw connections and conclusions based on solid information.

Wherever your travels take you this summer, make it your practice to formulate questions and to listen carefully when you engage in conversations with old or new friends. Listen to the expressions of others as carefully as you would listen to the voice of our own heart and mind, and see if you don’t recognize threads of experience that lead to good discussions and ultimately to good solutions.

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