Listening: A Miracle of Understanding

Listening: A Miracle of Understanding

Image: Oscar Dominguez, Silent Listener, [Fair Use] via

On some level, everyone thinks they know what it means to listen. You pay attention (at least a little). You allow other people to speak. You don’t interrupt. When they finish, you know what they said. Most of us acknowledge that it is important to listen, if only to be polite. But listening can go beyond just allowing others to speak, moving toward what the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer called the “miracle of understanding.” When we listen for understanding, we make ourselves vulnerable to examining our own ideas in new ways that open us up to change. In Books@Work, participants frequently describe what they call an a-ha moment – the kind of miracle that springs from listening to the text and to each other as they read and discuss a piece of literature.

Literature provides the opportunity to interact with another person as we read and reflect. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye may have described it best when he said that you really connect with a story when “you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” The plot may seem utterly real or totally fantastical. Characters may appear like old friends or like bizarre strangers. The story may reinforce our beliefs or challenge ideas we hold dear. The author’s meaning may be confusing or crystal clear. But by bringing our own life experience to the story, we join the author in creating a shared meaning that is a valuable starting place for the miracle of understanding.

Portrait of John Dewey

John Dewey, bust portrait 1859-1952, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Solitary reading, no matter how engaged, does not unleash the full potential of literature. In Art as Experience, John Dewey described the miracle that occurs when we seek understanding beyond our own interpretations and engage in dialogue with others about works of art. That miracle of understanding takes more than airing individual views on a piece of literature, as interesting and enjoyable as that can be. It almost always takes sharing a bit of our own life story as we discuss a piece of literature. It takes recognizing one’s own preconceived notions and even one’s prejudices and then working up the courage to openly acknowledge them. Dewey’s discovery happens when a group creatively builds new individual and collective meanings through shared inquiry; in the process we enhance our own lives, our communities, and even democracy as a whole.

He could have been writing about Books@Work. A recent interview with Books@Work participants, who are part of a group that has been together for nearly four years, brings this home. They expressed the enjoyment they get from their book discussions and how they have altered the work dynamics on their team. One participant told me that these discussions were very different than “learning” as he remembered it because this was “sharing ideas between me, other people’s ideas and the author.” He has acquired a newfound passion for Russian authors and now participates in online communities where he shares life experiences and evolving ideas with people around the world. Listening to others through literature has literally expanded his world.

In the workplace, the value of listening in this way is not incidental. Literature discussions have value if they simply provide a place where people feel they can speak and be heard. But Books@Work discussions at their best go beyond basic listening to the deeper level of listening as a process of mutual understanding and change. And this deeper listening translates to work almost immediately. As one participant recently shared, “After Books@Work, we’ve learned to respect one another’s thoughts more than we did before. I’ve also noticed that we stop, myself included, and actually have listened to what’s being said by our other teammates. Before. . . we always thought we were right regardless of what someone else had thought or said.” As Dewey predicted, developing these listening skills transforms interactions well beyond the seminar into the very fabric of collaboration and creativity in the everyday work of organizations.

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Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen Nestor has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. Karen is a member of the Board of Books@Work.