A Different Way to Listen

sfbridgeI’m going to introduce you to a man you have probably never heard of. His name is Joseph Schaeffer. He’s a mediator and educator. If you’ve been around long enough, you may remember an incidence in British Columbia in the 1990s, where several Sikh veterans weren’t allowed to enter a Legion: all men entering a Legion are required to remove their hats, but a baptized Sikh cannot. Pritam Singh Jauhal was a WWII veteran, and he filed a complaint.

Schaeffer was called in to mediate. You can read this interesting account of the mediation process here.

Almost 20 years later, I got to meet him as part of a three-day workshop that was being offered in town, and the way he viewed conflict blew my mind. Given the atmosphere these days, I think it bears repeating.

Typical communication models show a sender and a recipient: one person sends a message and the other person receives it. According to Schaffer, the objective of this kind of model is “to understand each other.” This model focuses on opinions, generalizations, conclusions, assumptions, values, and beliefs (which he says are usually stated as facts). The desired outcome of these models is “agreement.”

In contrast, Schaeffer taught us “creative communication.” I don’t believe he chose that term because it sounded trendy; I believe it really reflects what he teaches: that we meet to create meaning. In his model, the objective is “to become familiar with each other.” The focus is on “Living Meaning,” and the outcome is “agreements to ‘act as if’ for a while…”

Do you see at least some of the differences? It’ll probably become clearer if I explain Living Meaning. He uses this term to describe how we create meaning as we go through life.

This is the example he gave us: book. Everyone can recognize what a book is. But what does a book mean to you? To one person, a book might mean a form a punishment, something that was used as a tool in spanking. To another person, it might mean cozy evenings on Mommy’s lap while she read. These are the Living Meanings of the word “book.”

So how do we learn someone else’s “Living Meaning”? By deep listening, according to Schaeffer. This is the tough part, because it involves keeping your own mouth shut and also turning off the invisible conversation partner in your mind. Schaeffer had us sit in partners to practice this: one talked for several minutes while the other listened. The listener, though, had to be mindful of that inner voice and simply listen.

We did often ask how questions fit into this model, e.g., if you wanted to ask a question for clarification or to show your interest, where did that fit in? I don’t know if we ever got an answer to that. However, when I am able to turn off that inner voice and just listen to the person opposite me, something deeper transpires. It wouldn’t fit Schaeffer’s model for me to say that I understand the person better, but I definitely feel a deeper connection in that moment.

In the end, Schaeffer believed that we can never say that we “know” someone, because we will never have access to all their life experiences. But by focused, deep listening, and by aiming to “find places of meaning we both feel good about,” I do find that I have a much easier time getting along with people. The only difficulty is trying to remember to put this into practice: it’s not easy, but it does work for me when I do use it.

So, that’s Joseph Schaeffer and creative communication. The next time you’re faced with someone whose opinions differ from yours, consider just listening. Of course, if you feel unsafe, then leave the situation quickly. But if you’re talking to someone or listening to a presentation and you disagree with them, don’t bud in with your arguments; give them 100% of your attention and learn what they’re trying to share with you. You may not change your mind, but you’ll likely come away with a stronger connection to them, and I think humanity could use a few of those right now.

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