A Meeting of Minds: Shared Reading and Lifelong Learning at Work

A Meeting of Minds: Shared Reading and Lifelong Learning at Work

Image: Wojciech Siudmak, The Meeting of Cultures, 1987,  [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org

Who doesn’t enjoy a lively conversation? Mortimer Adler, the co-founder of the Great Books program, wrote, “Of all the things that human beings do, conversing with one another is the most characteristically human.” Adler’s How to Read a Book is a literary classic, but less well known is his 1983 companion volume How to Speak and How to Listen. Conversation – speaking and listening – is part of the normal activities of life, but Adler describes a kind of communication that goes deeper, a “two-way talk [that] can achieve a meeting of minds, a sharing of understandings and thoughts, of feelings and wishes.” This kind of conversation is pleasurable and satisfying but, too often, rare.  

Conversation about books provides a special learning space that promotes this deeper level of communication. First of all, each reader has his own conversation with the author while reading the book. They engage in back-and-forth dialogue, comparing the way they see things and sharing their reactions to the events in a piece of fiction. The solitary reader may ask if s/he would react the same way as a character in the novel or whether things might have turned out differently had the characters made different choices.  

This silent conversation really gains power, however, when followed by a face-to-face conversation with others who have had the same reading experience, a common ground for genuine dialogue. Books@Work participants have described many of the same ideas about speaking and listening that Adler called communion. Using remarkably similar language, one participant said,

Because the stories [we read] are so different and diverse, we bring such different contexts, ideas, experiences. We talk from different angles. When we arrive at a communal understanding, we are developing a common belief system. It helps us to reinforce our commitments, our commitment to be respectful of each other’s ideas, thought, experiences, to be truly human. It helps us bring our humanity into the workplace.

Endless Rhythm_Robert Delaunay

Robert Delaunay, Endless Rhythm, 1934, Tate Modern, London, UK, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

This participant describes the big idea that has motivated centuries of liberal arts education, a belief that engagement with literature (and other arts) makes a difference in how people approach the business of everyday life. The “how-to” of speaking and listening is not as important as the invaluable opportunity to step away from the demands of the workplace to engage with others – and to let these human interactions guide our workplace conversations later.

When companies first sign on to Books@Work, they expect it to be a positive social experience for their employees. Some hope that it will create meaningful outcomes for the organization. But many are surprised that reading, talking and listening is more than positive – it’s transformative for individuals, teams and organizations. In hundreds of interviews, participants tell us over and over again that they have changed – and their interactions with others in the workplace have changed too.

And they tell us that these changes haven’t come from reading just one selection. Rather, by reading and discussing multiple books, they see increasing impact even beyond the discussion. One healthcare worker said, “We got into questions about what humans really need. There are different ways to look at every event. What glasses are we going to put on for it? It enhances our ability to communicate and perceive things – with our patients and our teammates.”

Participants are actually describing lifelong learning at its best, the experience of deepening one’s knowledge and understanding over time through shared discovery. The deep conversation that Adler and Books@Work participants describe is an important way to develop the engaged learning that is essential in the rapidly evolving 21st century workplace.

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Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. She recently completed a doctorate in human and organizational learning, with a focus on how people repeatedly reshape their lives throughout the lifespan.  Karen is a member of the Board of That Can Be Me, Inc., the facilitator of Books@Work.