The Sound of Silence: How Active Listening Can Save the World

Many of us have never heard of Edward Harkness, a philanthropist still lauded for financing one school’s institutional commitment to active listening back in 1930.

While Edward’s Harkness method was boldly envisioned and funded for the rarefied classroom air of Phillips Exeter Academy, we don’t have to attend a tony boarding school to practice the zen of active listening. In fact there’s nothing stopping us from trying it out at a table with loved ones, or socially distanced in lounge chairs.

Why Harkness?

It’s often hard for young minds to find space in a room overcrowded with loud voices and even bigger personalities. Sometimes it’s just not quiet enough for everyone to be heard, especially our beloved introverts (more on them later). And in our modern era of dreaded and often misunderstood cancel culture, the perceived risk of speaking out as different or other has never felt more dangerous for a budding thinker.

That’s why the Harkness method deserves our attention. All we need is a circle and an open mind. Who cares if it’s true blue Harkness? It’s time to experiment with what might bloom in the spaces between all that is otherwise left unsaid and unheard.

This is how we explore rather than accept, reflect instead of consume. It’s also a great inoculation against groupthink.

Before our ideas fully form, they deserve to be tested, questioned and refined. That doesn’t happen in a room where being wrong is taboo. Inclusion cannot grow in such hostile environments. It knows where it’s not wanted.

Just as a teacher practicing Harkness must surrender the heavy role of guiding students to the right answer, a parent must adopt a similar role as the friendly facilitator for family conversations.

How to Facilitate

Okay: you’re sitting inside or outside with others, forced to make eye contact and sheepishly waiting for someone to start the dialogue. No one commands the head of the table, because there is no head (if there is even a table).

So now what?

We need a topic. Something meaty enough to hold our interest and suitably complicated to defy simple answers.

It could be a difficult ethical choice with weighty consequences. Or maybe you lean toward controversial political issues and polarizing current events. The messier the better.

This is when we begin to unearth who we really are. Many practice Harkness principles with a shared text or other form of media. Consider a poem, short story, advertisement or political cartoon. Tap into some of the story starters or debate topics listed at the end of this blog.

What if you hail from a large, boisterous family with young kids, where interruption is king? You may need to bring out a talking stick or another symbol of egalitarian turn taking, especially for those who may be less than keen on surrendering the mic. Think of the conch in Lord of the Flies (but way before the island went up flames).

Eventually you can graduate from that stick, presuming you haven’t already snapped it in half.

Here is where we find our courage to speak. We will never surrender it again, not for anyone. Next we discover the compassion to listen, especially to what we don’t want to hear. And only then, when we’re truly ready to evolve, can we develop the empathy to understand one another.

That’s when we’re at our best. We can’t wait for our educators to teach active listening and speaking in their classrooms. It’s too important and it’s too hard. We must practice this with each other at our kitchen tables, on courts and fields, and at work.

And it is in our willingness to admit, “Hey, I could be wrong,” when we are most likely to arrive at what is right and true. We can all go there, but only together, in collective vulnerability.

Quiet Power of Introverts

Still not convinced? Then do it for the introverts (if you’re not one yourself, you’re either related to, friends with, dating, married to, or divorced from one). When we’re not busy talking over them and cutting them off, they’re often our best thinkers. They have vital ideas to contribute.

If the quiet power of introverts doesn’t move you, what about the exponential power of diversity as an incubator for innovation and discovery? Putting good people in the same room can salt the secret sauce of greatness. But they can’t be like-minded, homogenous folks. The participants must be markedly different and diverse in myriad ways, and those prickly differences require more than tolerance. They demand a full embrace.

We can’t all attend fancy schools with unparalleled pedagogy and the best teachers in town. Luckily we never have to walk such hallowed halls to become our best selves. We just need to claim our voices in the places where we already study, work and live.

Here are some additional resources to get us all listening to each other.

Active Listening Resources

Current Events / Topics (Grades 6-12)

  • COVID-19 protocols

  • 100 Topics for Debate (NYTimes)

Story Starters (Grades K-5)

~Matthew Hayutin, M. Ed

Founder & Partner, Hayutin & Associates

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