From the Field
by Fred Hang
What makes for a good discussion? A lively exchange of different ideas. A topic or text worth talking about. Enough ambiguity in that topic or text to encourage us to plumb its depths. Comfortable chairs. No doubt we all have our own notions to add to the list.
Printed on the name cards used in Great Books training sessions, you'll find this quote, “A good discussion . . . is known by the skill with which participants listen to one another.” I would say it this way, “The best part of any discussion is not what you say, but what you hear.” Let's consider the role of listening in discussion for a moment.
Listening is difficult. I'd argue that it is the most important of human communication skills. Sadly, it is also often the least practiced. “Listen to each another,” is one of the most common refrains in any classroom, but the “how to” often goes untaught. Unfortunately there are few good role models for listening in contemporary media. Turn on almost any talk show or cable news network and you can witness heated exchanges of ideas, but how much listening is going on? The exchange of many words far outweighs the silent pauses that are so necessary for understanding.
Shared Inquiry™ discussions offer a rich opportunity to practice listening. By listening to one another before reacting, we move toward understanding divergent ideas. We begin to let go of the notion that there must be a certain point of view to agree upon or that there is a foregone conclusion we should have seen all along—notions that can block effective listening.When I make the effort to pause and listen to someone whose ideas and point of view are different than mine, I begin to understand the person. This is one of the most valuable lessons Shared Inquiry offers—that in the end, I don't have to agree with you to understand you.
Fred Hang is a Senior Training Instructor for the Great Books Foundation.