If you haven’t heard of the Listen First Project, check them out! Devoted to mending “the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time,” this project is currently celebrating its fifth year of work:
We believe in the power of starting new conversations that move from 'us vs. them' to 'me and you’ to turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division. Listen First Project creates opportunities and teaches skills for conversations that tip the scales toward a stronger and more equitable future for our nation and better relationships in our daily lives.
You can read about Pearce Godwin, who founded Listen First in 2013 after six months in Africa taught him the crucial importance of listening to understand, and about Listen First’s team of leaders on their website. With over 150 partners in the Listen First Coalition, the Listen First Essay Series, and the National Conversation Project (which has grown out of the National Week of Conversation started in 2018), the Project now reaches hundreds of thousands of people across the United States and beyond.
Their message is simple but profound: if we want to move beyond the divisions that are tearing at the foundations of our democratic society, we must learn to listen. Here are the strategies the Project suggests:
Listen First to understand rather than to reply Listen First before rejecting a conversation Listen First before dismissing alternative ideas Listen First before launching attacks Listen First to more effectively advocate your position
If this sounds a lot like what Krista Ratcliffe calls “rhetorical listening,” and it certainly does, it gives teachers of writing one more good reason to base their courses on rhetorical principles and to spend time in class introducing and discussing them with students. Rhetoric is founded on the concept of dialogism, of give and take, of two or more people working through issues together. The importance of audience in rhetorical theory and practice relates directly to this concept. I like to begin each course I teach with such fundamentals and with exploring how they are at work in our everyday lives. But these discussions need to inform every class that follows, as we practice what it means to attend carefully to an audience and what it means to practice “listening first.”
Fortunately, we now have sites like Listen First and resources like the essays and books of Krista Ratcliffe and others to help us do so. As we near the end of 2018, it’s time to invite our students to join the Listen First Project, to take the pledge to “listen first” and to spread the word about the National Conversation Project. As I am writing this post, I am also reading the new U.S. Climate Report, with its blunt and stern warnings of what is happening to our earth this very moment. Never have we needed the ability to listen to understand more than we do right now. So much of our students’ future depends on it.