This summer my daughter was asked to memorize a song from the musical Hamilton as part of an audition for camp. We downloaded the sound track and she proceeded to memorize the music from the entire first act. As I proceeded to listened to her sing it over and over, there was one line that stuck out to me, “talk less, smile more”. Honestly, when you listen to the song, the intended meaning of the completed line is a bit different then what I want to write about here… but those four words got me thinking.
Why did this phrase get me thinking? Because so often when we are having conversations with other people we are so focused on what we are saying, our perspective, and what our response is going to be, we never really listen for understanding. And if we are not listening for understanding, we are not truly communicating. True communication is about more than speaking, it is about talking less, listening more, and is accentuated by our body language.
Recently I spent some time with a person who loves to play the “devils advocate” and often challenges what other people are saying. Sometimes this is a great way to get a thoughtful conversation going, but in this circumstance it doesn’t, because the person is always preparing their next response and not listening to what other people are saying. She is more in her head with her thoughts, rather then listening and fully engaging in the conversation. Conversations with this person usually dead-end and leave the other participants frustrated.
According to yourdictionary.com and Wikipedia “civil (courteous) discourse (conversation) is engagement in discourse intended to enhance understanding”. There is nothing I like better then civil discourse, the opportunity to have a discussion with someone who hopefully has a different understanding or perspective then I have. It gives me a chance to consider and test my stance, and if I am lucky… it allows me to add something to my knowledge base… but it only works if my participation in the conversation includes listening for understanding. When someone else is speaking, I can not be half listening and half considering my rebuttal. I must be fully engaging in what the other person is saying. And then when I don’t understand the other person’s perspective or the information being presented, it is my job as a communicator to pause and to reciprocate with questions to dig deeper and gain understanding. Even if in the end we agree to disagree, my goal is to walk away from the conversation having a deeper awareness of the other participant’s perspective.
Another important aspect of civil discourse is maintaining a level of respect for the other communicator… even if your perspectives are at odds with one another. How we listen, the tone of our voice, and the words we choose to respond with are important aspects to maintaining respect, but just as important is how we respond with our bodies. Are we leaning in, smiling, showing interest by looking at the speaker or are we crossing our arms, rolling our eyes (something my family has told me I do on occasion) and looking away? Are we telling the other communicator we are open to understanding their perspective or are we closed off and unwilling to really participate in civil discourse?
We are living in a time of divisiveness. More and more often friends, neighbors and family members are finding themselves at odds with each other over their perspectives of how the world should work and rather than participating in civil discourse we shut each other out. It can be a real downer. However, on a recent Sunday evening (September 24, 2017), shortly after I had started to write this blog post, my family was watching 60 Minutes. One of the segments called Divided was a conversation facilitated by none other then Oprah Winfrey, the newly hired 60 Minutes part time commentator. The conversation examined the polarization of the United States and included 14 panelists from the state of Michigan with widely varying perspectives. I can not say there was much shift in perspectives, but it was an example of civil discourse on national television and I loved it.
Engaging in civil discourse, by respectfully listening for understanding and responding with openness is not always easy. It takes awareness and discipline. It is something that requires ongoing practice over a lifetime. But I truly believe if each of us talks less and smiles more while participating in civil discourse, great things can happen.