When I was in my 20s and learning to weave, I acquired a thread counter. This little magnifying tool still resides in my purse, a reminder that there’s more going on than meets the eye.
My magnifier reveals the multi-colored threads that can’t be seen when viewed from a distance. Using it, I learned about complex weaves, where different patterns, colors, and effects reveal themselves on each side of a fabric. While there is usually a “right” side, the one the designer had in mind, the reverse side—equally strong and useable—can be surprisingly beautiful. My living room chairs are upholstered with the back side of a fabric that enchanted me, even if it wasn’t the right side.
And so it is with our conversations. During my career at Boeing, I helped managers learn to ask open-ended questions. We often front-load our questions in ways that make disagreement uncomfortable: “Don’t you agree that…?” and “Isn’t it…?” give a clear message about the response we expect.
Open-ended questions require letting go of knowing what the answer will be and taking a chance on someone disagreeing with us. Such questions require a person to pause, think, and reflect, so they promote honest exchange and call forth deeper answers about how a person really feels. Words and phrases such as “why,” “how,” “tell me about,” or “what do you think about?” help us gain understanding, rather than what we expect to hear.
Andrea Cohen is a Compassionate Listening curriculum developer, author, and facilitator, and she was co-director of the Jewish-German Reconciliation Project, a program that helped people heal the wounds of World War II through the practice of deep listening. Since last fall’s election, she has provided skills-building sessions at Seattle venues to help people connect across the political divide.
“This requires an act of courage and a capacity to listen with our hearts as well as with our heads,” Cohen says. It helps us notice—and manage—how we react when we hear something we don’t like. Why do that? For the sake of understanding, “and for making our relationships with family, friends, and others we encounter just a little bit kinder,” she adds.
Cohen suggests that we start by asking ourselves honestly about our own motivations. “Are we really open to learning something new, or do we simply want to reinforce our stereotypes about the other person? If we’re really serious about understanding what lies beneath the other person’s positions, we’ll need to leave our assumptions at the door.”
It is relatively easy to find out what others think. (How many noisy encounters have you engaged in or heard over the past three months?) It’s harder to ask about the experiences that formed these strongly held opinions. Even harder is the willingness to explore the foundational values that motivate us and others. This process requires respect and bravery.
Yet clarifying our own values, and being open and curious about the values of others, helps us see the connecting threads and diverse patterns of life. Through deep listening, we can better see, understand—and perhaps appreciate—the other side.
Rebecca Crichton is executive director of Northwest Center for Creative Aging and presents programs on that topic in the Seattle area. She worked at Boeing for 21 years as a writer, curriculum designer, and leadership development coach. She has master’s degrees in child development and organizational development, and she is a certified coach.