“I had some really delicious Indian and Sri Lankan food the other day. It was great!”
Silence on the other end of the line.
“Either the call dropped or you’re ignoring me.”
“No no, I’m here.”
So why the lack of response? That’s the question I was left asking myself after a phone conversation this morning. Why the lack of response?
As an educator, I am constantly looking for ways to demonstrate to my students that someone is listening to them. When they speak, I respond. When they tell me something they’ve done or something they’re excited about, I ask questions about it, wish them luck, or tell them I hope they have a great time. If they tell me that something is wrong, I ask what I can do to help. I remind them that they can always come chat if they need to. I leave sticky notes on their desks asking if they’re okay today.
A huge element of teaching is about developing relationships. If my students know that I care about them, they are more likely to learn in my classroom. We can have challenging conversations when they feel that their voices are being heard, their opinions matter, and their ideas will be taken seriously.
When classroom cultures develop around these attitudes and behaviors, real dialogue takes place. Real learning happens.
Last week, my grade ten students wanted to continue a Socratic Seminar that I thought we’d completed. They clearly had more to say, so we went with it. They started off by asking questions about the relationship between religion and violence; over an hour later, we were deep in a discussion about renewable energy.
My students’ questions drove the conversation. As vocal students willingly expressed uncertainty, they encouraged quieter peers to speak up and provide their thoughts and questions. Some students explained that they’d changed their minds over the course of our discussion, while others remained convinced of their own ideas. Some wavered back and forth and laughed at their own equivocating. Others admitted to feeling a general sense of uncertainty and apprehension that hadn’t occurred to them before our discussion.
It didn’t really matter.
The point was that they’d talked. They’d heard each other. They were willing to be open and vulnerable, question their classmates, express their ideas, and respond to challenges from their peers. They didn’t just talk; they listened. Through listening, they learned. They operated in the safe space that we’ve created this year, and they learned as a result.
Cultivating dialogue is vital with students, and equally so among adults.
But why is it so difficult?
One factor that I think makes dialogue challenging is being present. We spend a lot of time with our attention torn between one thing or another – email, social media, back-to-back meetings and deadlines, a pervasive need to “be there” with multiple people at once. We live in a society in which “busy” often denotes “good”. We feel the need to justify spending time alone or with just one other person.
I would like to advocate that we take a deep breath and a step backwards. The students in front of me are enough and they deserve my complete attention. The friend who joins me for coffee is enough and deserves my complete attention. The person on the other end of the line is enough and deserves my complete attention.
When I give you my complete attention and respond to you and what you’ve said, dialogue will take place. If I am only half-listening, if I am only partially there with you, dialogue is simply not possible.
In addition to practicing compassion, I am also working on being present. I want to listen to you. I want to hear you. I want to see you. This way, we can engage in dialogue, affect change, and make the world a better and more peaceful place.