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How might we listen to each others souls?

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

I spent many years teaching in a dialogue circle of 20 students at the SFU Semester in Dialogue. The intention of the dialogue circle (in my view) was to create a space where students would feel like they could talk openly about their ideas about the world. The circle was a place to talk about their perspectives, concerns, hopes, dreams and fears. Most classrooms don't work like this. Typically there is an 'expert' at the front of the room and only the students who have done all the reading and feel confident speaking will put up their hands. Its usually the same ones and the teachers sometimes asks students who don't talk to come forward. Most of the time they are trying to 'get a good grade' and it is an awkward discussion at best. My own experience of being academic settings was oppositional and intensely competitive.

It is not easy to get a group of young people to talk openly about what they care about. Most young people have been asked to listen to the adults, parents and teachers and to respect their opinions and follow the rules. Most young people have learned in school how to repeat back what they were told is ‘right’ and once in a while find themselves in a debate where they need to see two sides to an issue. Rarely do we ask young people to imagine all the possible scenarios or to create a space where it is ok to say ‘i have no idea what i think’.

In the dialogue circle we would spend months learning how to be in dialogue together, to be in a circle without a desk, to build relationships and trust so that we could speak openly about our thoughts, dreams, insecurities and pain. It wasn’t easy and we didn’t always succeed. We set up the circle so that we didn't have a decision to make, they were not graded and we had no intended outcome. There was often a topic and a guest but there was little focus on achieving goals.

I would often get asked by my students and co-teachers what readings I would suggest that would help them feel more comfortable in the space of a circle. I found very little theory/writing about dialogue that engaged me in a way that described my experience of trying to encourage young people to find their voice. I would often say that Pema Chodron and buddhist philosophy taught me more about being a teacher than any workshop or reading. I had a hunch that listening had more to do with our bodies and hearts than it did with our intellect or brains.

The passage that I shared the most comes from Parker Palmer’s book “The Courage to Teach”. I would read this passage to most of my classes in an effort to describe how we might create space to actually listen to one another. We needed to walk softly in the forest if we were to hear another person's soul. To mention ‘the soul’ in a classroom at university felt awkward and strange as a teacher but it was the most true statement I had ever heard. It truly is the most beautiful passage about listening that I have ever come across and I'm sharing part of it hear for you to enjoy.

How do you listen to your own soul? What is it saying?

Parker Palmer writing about dialogue in The Courage to Teach (1998, p. 50)

“Without new ground rules, we will revert to the norms implicit in any culture that tell us how we are supposed to talk to each other. In our culture, these include politeness, a ban on inquiring into things that are ‘none of your business’, and a willingness to give the other the benefit of the doubt. In academic settings, these conventional rules are overlaid with another set that encourage competition: we should question each other’s claims, think oppositionally about what we are hearing, and be ready with a quick response.

That mix is obviously a recipe for confusion. The conventional norm of ‘making nice’ with each other, folded into the professional norm of competition, creates an ethos in which it feels dangerous to speak or to listen. Then we proceed to multiply that confusion, and the sense of danger that goes with it, by interweaving a third set of norms implicit in conventional and academic culture alike: we were put on earth to advise, fix, and save each other, and whenever an opportunity to do so presents itself, we should seize it!

This fix-it response kicks in almost reflexively when someone breaks free of the first and second set of norms and actually manages to name a real problem he or she is having, for example, in teaching. At the very moment of feeling most vulnerable – having violated norms that tell us to be both guarded and competitive – the person is suddenly invaded with advice: “I used to have that problem, but here is how I solved it,” or “You ought to read so-and-so’s book. It tells you exactly how to deal with a situation like that”.

Sometimes the advice is offered in order to be helpful, and sometimes it is given to make the advisor feel superior. But the motivation does not matter, for the outcome is almost always the same: quick fixes make the person who shared the problem feel unheard and dismissed.

If we want to support each other’s inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard. If we want to see and hear a person’s soul, there is another truth we must remember: the soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, and yet shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.

We need ground rules for dialogue that allow us to be present to another person’s problems in a quiet, receptive way that encourages the soul to come forth, a way that does not presume to know what is right for the other but allows the other’s soul to find its own answers at its own level and pace.”

The Courage to Teach (1998, p. 50) Parker Palmer.

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