I’ve been reading Alan Alda’s delightful and provocative memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned.
Although he’d had a successful acting career, Alda confesses he didn’t fully understand what it takes to be a good actor until M*A*S*H.
“When I started out as an actor, I thought, Here’s what I have to say; how shall I say it? On M*A*S*H, I began to understand that what I do in the scene is not as important as what happens between me and the other person. And listening is what lets it happen. It’s almost always the other person who causes you to say what you say next. You don’t have to figure out how you’ll say it. You have to listen so simply; so innocently, that the other person brings about a change in you that makes you say it and informs the way you say it.
The difference between listening and pretending to listen, I discovered, is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid. One is alive, the other is stuffed. Eventually, I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues. Like so much of what I learned in the theater, this turned out to be how life works, too.”
Several statements from these two paragraphs are worth considering in the context of our deliberative forums.
Here’s what I have to say. How shall I say it?
Somewhere in my sixteen years of working with deliberative forums, I came across a quote from Paul Axtell, “We live in a culture where we are raised to problem-solve and give advice. We are either talking or waiting to talk.” When we find ourselves thinking about what we are going to say next or how we are going to say it, we have checked out of the conversation. Instead, maybe we need to check our brain and engage our being. How can we fully know what to say until we’ve fully listened? Listening is different from hearing. Listening takes time. It takes full engagement of all of our senses. We can’t be fully engaged if we are focused on ourselves and what we are going to say.
What I do is not as important as what happens between us
The spaces between us is where the magic occurs. We forget how powerful the “between” can be. There are two ways in which we violate the “between” moments in our forums and miss opportunities for breakthrough deliberation. First, a noble desire by the moderator to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak can lead to a Baskin Robbins approach to moderating. If you’ve ever been to the famous ice cream shop or other businesses that employ “take a number, please” line management systems, you know what I mean. As a moderator you see an intimidating sea of hands waiting to speak. You go around the room like a mechanical “take a number machine” pointing from raised hand to raised hand. “I’ll take you, then you, then you, then you, then you.” By the time the third “then you” person is speaking, any sense that this is a conversation is completely lost. There is no “between us”. We are not reacting to what others are saying; we are giving the speech that was inspired by a comment made several minutes ago and long forgotten by the subsequent disconnected thoughts. Those in line to speak are focused on what they are going to do or say next. The rest of the people in the room have checked out. They didn’t come to hear a series of speeches.
The second way we fail to take advantage of the “between” moments is when we rush to fill the silence, We ask a question and no one answers. We assume that it MUST have been a bad question. So we restate it. We ask another question. We stutter and stumble. Our voice fills the silence and distracts the participants from their thoughtful consideration of what might have been an outstanding question. We forget that silence IS content. Deep thinking takes place in silence. Deliberation takes place in silence.
Claude Debussy said that “Music is the space between the notes.” (Or it might have been Miles Davis who said, “It’s not the note I play-it’s the space between the notes.”) This blog, which contains the graphic below, provocatively explores the question “But what if the non-things–the space between the things–is just if not more important?” from different perspectives and metaphors.
For example, this blog points out:
- “Some of the best musicians, I’m told, play fewer notes than you actually hear”
- Artists know that negative space carries weight.
- Newbie writers (like me) are taught that it’s the words you cut out that matter most. We’re told to edit until nothing else can be removed.
- But real learning takes place between exposures to content! Long-term memory from learning happens after the training. The space between the lessons and practice is where the learning is made permanent.
Great advice, from an interesting blog!
How often do we assume that we know what others mean? We jump to conclusions. We make assumptions. But we need to discipline ourselves to listen innocently, to suspend our assumptions. Or if we ARE going to base our response on assumptions, perhaps we need to assume the speaker has the best of intentions in our listening. The book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, recommends disentangling impact and intent. We can only be aware of our intentions and how the other person’s comments impact us. We cannot know their intentions or how our words impact them. And yet, we assume that we know the other person’s intentions and more often than not, we assume the worst intent.
Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you
When you think about it, this is a scary proposition. It means that we have to be willing to acknowledge that we don’t have all of the answers. We might not know everything. We may even have based our own opinions on faulty facts or logic, or a limited understanding of the issues. At the conclusion of our forums, we ask participants to reflect on how their thinking has changed. Notice that we are focused on how thinking has changed, not how opinions have changed. Forums may not change opinions, but they DO change people’s way of thinking about issues. We cannot engage in honest dialogue and walk away unchanged.
Dueling monologues: This is what we often see in public hearings, particularly those that are held because that are mandated by legislation and not held because of an earnest desire to engage the public. In dueling monologues, each person gets their two or three minutes to make their case and then they sit down or leave. They get a hearing. They are heard. And unless the legislative body is going to vote, there is no reason to stay. They physically check out. Public hearings are not about public listening, or public decision-making, or even public engagement. You may get your chance to speak, but there is no guarantee that you have been heard and no requirement that you listen.
But perhaps the most profound lesson from this reading that good acting happens when we learn to listen. In our work, skeptics often ask about the action. What action follows from forums? Well, Alda has given us a new way to answer, “How can we know how to act until we learn how to listen? The action may be less about the doing and more about what happens between us, what happens when we listen.”
Listening IS acting!