Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Gift of Listening

When our views are so polarized, it becomes increasingly difficult to listen...and hear.
Special Forum guest blogger Rosanne Thomas, certified etiquette and protocol consultant and founder of Boston-based Protocol Advisors, Inc., reflects on the public response to the proposed Islamic Center in New York and offers tips to help us communicate with respect, despite our differences.

Mention the now approved Islamic community center to be built near the site of the World Trade Center and you will get an opinion. Politicians and the general public are voicing theirs (some even making up words, i.e., 'refudiate,' so great is their consternation), and dissenting opinions are often met with shrill invective. President Obama, the Reverend Pat Robinson, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former House of Representative Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and countless others have weighed in. "Religious tolerance" and "freedom of assembly" are juxtaposed against "insult and dishonor" and "a slap in the face to victims and their families."

The 9/11 attacks evoke universal sadness and anger to this day. And in the midst of these emotions, if there is disagreement, true listening, understanding and respect are hard to come by. For many, it is difficult to remember that the vast majority of Muslims were as horrified and traumatized as anyone that day, yet have lived with guilt by association ever since. For others whose losses were simply overwhelming, to expect them to embrace a mosque near the site seems too much to ask.

There may in fact be no common ground here, but there may still be an opportunity. Deciding to really listen, to respect even if we do not agree, to not take dissenting opinions personally and to accept that others just see things differently could do us all a world of good.

In active listening, we:

  • Subjugate our thoughts and feelings about a topic in favor of a speaker's thoughts and feelings
  • Tune in to both what the speaker is saying and how s/he feels about what s/he is saying
  • Give the speaker the gift of understanding and respect, even if we do not agree

To listen well, we must:

  • Give undivided attention
  • Refrain from asking questions or directing the conversation
  • Mirror the speaker's emotions, i.e., smile if s/he smiles, or look concerned if s/he looks concerned
  • Restate through-out to make sure we understand and to let the speaker know we are listening
  • Empathize
While our opinions may not change, we still may learn something and may forge a new or stronger relationship in the process.

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