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The Listening Neighbor

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (Part 3)

“The Listening Neighbor” 

Michael Jinkins


There is no place in this country where ideological disputes rage with more vigor, and often viscous, violent rhetoric, than in higher education.


Colleges, universities and seminaries are intended to provide a place for free-wheeling debate, where nothing should be taken for granted, where ideas are tested and put to the most stringent standards of critical thinking. Argument and counter-argument have been essential to education since the days of the ancient Greek Lyceum.


What we sometimes forget, however, in higher education, is that debate does not flourish from behind the walls of armed enemy encampments. Nor does freedom of expression reign on a campus that refuses to listen to perspectives that grate against the reigning ideologies. And academic freedom is not license for dehumanizing those with whom one disagrees. Ultimately the only thing a free society of learning cannot tolerate is out-and-out intolerance of other people.


Clashes of ideas need not pit the members of an academic community against one another, or so some of us determined several years ago when a new initiative was launched at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. What happened on that campus may appear to be a common-sense approach, but common sense does not always win out these days.


Prior to my arrival there as president, and for many years past, a required course introduced all entering Masters degree students to the expectations and goals of seminary education. There is no doubt that the original vision for this course was positive. But, in time, and especially under the leadership of a few professors, it had devolved into an occasion to embarrass and ostracize students whose views did not reflect the dominant socially-progressive attitude in the school.


Some other professors had become deeply concerned about this. They had grown increasingly worried about the ways in which this required course was being used as a tool to coerce social and ideological conformity among the students. And, under the leadership of these faculty members, a new required introductory course was designed and introduced, although the actual title of the course remained the same.


Whereas the previous course had reflected an unwritten but assumed mandate to convert students to the prevailing ideology and commitments on the campus, the new course intended to teach students to become “generous listeners.”


You can see, immediately, the difference in learning outcomes those designing the new course had in mind. Their ultimate commitment was to nurture a learning community.


Now, at this point, it is probably important to say that the professors who reshaped the course, themselves, also strongly reflected the social progressivism of the school. Their own commitments were clear in this.


However these professors felt that the nurturing of a genuine learning community was a higher value than conversion of students to their own ideology. From their perspective, a learning community requires the vigorous and genuine exchange of ideas. And for such a learning community to flourish required that community members learn to listen to one another with respect and openness.


Because my job as President was primarily to represent the school around the country and to encourage (and solicit) support for its educational programs, unfortunately, I didn’t have time to teach. But I had plenty of time to observe closely, and, from time to time, was invited to lecture in this class. So, I was able to get a good look at what was happening among these entering students.


I would say that during the years this new course thrived the seminary community experienced something of a renaissance. So much so that other schools and congregations asked members of our faculty to teach them how to encourage “generous listening” among the members of their communities. These schools and congregations discovered that “generous listening” was more a matter of changing hearts and minds and habits than mastering of new teaching techniques.


Again, what we did was really common sense. But it was exactly the kind of common sense that has been neglected in politics, society and higher education for years. Instead of mimicking cable news with its angry talking heads arguing past one another, the “generous listening” approach requires thoughtful reflection. Argumentation should be vigorous, but listening should be even more vigorous. Ideas may be treated pretty roughly, but people are treated with care and respect.


Here’s how it worked.


The professors teaching the course would introduce a “hot button” issue. They would require extensive reading of material from people representing various sides of the “hot” issue. Thus, from the very beginning, students were introduced to an approach that is all but dead in our society: reading perspectives unlike our own, and being attentive and sensitive to how people’s various experiences shape their views. Students also received instruction on how prior experiences color new experiences. They learned about various forms of perceptions bias and psychological transference. In this way, they were able to better locate the “beam in their own eyes” before trying to examine the “mote” in the eyes of neighbors.


After reading these materials and listening to presentations in class reflective of various perspectives, the students were divided into “twos,” ideally differing in their perspectives on the issue at hand.


One student went first in laying out his or her perspective on the issue. The other student was charged with listening as actively as possible, perhaps even taking notes, but being sure to attend as fully as possible to the other person.


When the first student had finished his or her argument, the second student was required to communicate that argument back to the first person with special care not to denigrate or caricature the ideas or the person in any way, and checking with the other person frequently to make certain that their ideas were accurately represented. This mirroring exercise was absolutely essential to the process because it required a person who does not agree with an argument to climb inside the skin (as much as possible) of the other person, imaginatively and empathetically engaging the experience and thinking of the other person.


The listening exercise included the requirement for each person to listen carefully to how they emotionally felt when they heard the other person communicate his or her argument. Personal “gut-checking” was, in other words, essential to the whole process. If the listener felt defenses rising, it was important to recognize this so that emotional reactivity could be noted. Our emotions deeply affect how we hear, and a reactive hearing is usually skewed hearing. Sometimes a student might need to call “time” to take a few deep breaths, and to swallow hard, before continuing with his or her listening.


Once the first student was satisfied that he or she had been heard accurately, the process was reversed with the second student explaining his or her perspective mounting his or her own argument while the other student going through the same process as before.


There were lots of practical pointers students learned in addition, such as pausing longer (often much much longer) than usual before offering any counter-argument. Indeed, students were not permitted to mount a counter-argument at all until they had both thoroughly listened to each other.


Students learned to ask clarifying questions, and to make sure they understood the answers to these questions. This allowed strong emotions to subside before advancing the conversation.


The students also were instructed on how to find points of commonality, places where they fundamentally agreed beyond the particular issue being considered. In this manner, the two students began to see each other not merely as representatives of an idea, but as complex persons who hold many values, commitments, and ideas simultaneously.


The students overwhelmingly found the experience of “generous listening” both exhausting and valuable. As a result of the new course, we noticed friendships forming across previously unimaginable boundaries.


This became increasingly important as the student body saw a rise in women from predominantly African American denominations. These women spoke of God in a manner that struck some of the white feminist on campus as “unprogressive.” And, yet, these African American women were often far more attentive to social issues (particularly related to race and poverty) than were their white colleagues. As students accorded to one another’s perspectives greater complexity, and learned to appreciate the depth of their values, ethics and world-views, it became easier to shift from what I would call a “blame-based” encounter of differences to a “respect-based” encounter.


Students learned that life is considerably more complicated than they had imagined. And so are people. But, of course, that wasn’t the most important thing they learned.


To this day, I think the most important lessons had to do with learning to value community over individual personal ideology and how to become a community where the God who is worshiped is more important than our political and social perspectives.

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