Learning How to Talk and Listen, Nicholas Kristoff and Greg Mortensen Point the Way


A recent evening with Nicholas Kristof,  journalist for the New York Times, proved to be a heady antidote for  despair and pessimism regarding the formidable problems facing the world right now. With deeply felt passion and sterling credibility from his experience in the worst and most dire situations on every continent, Mr. Kristof energized the audience at Montana State University on October 7. He discussed his book Half the Sky: Turning  Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide that focuses on the suffering and inequality of women, a subject that is intertwined with most other injus-tices such as mass starvation, lack of education or health services, slave trafficking, and genocide—problems that seem overwhelming.  

Mr. Kristof's  globe-trotting lectures and journalism direct attention to the power of the written and spoken word to effect changes in the world. And the surprising outcome is that he brings the audience to its feet in what feels like a community joining together to work along with him. Basic to his beliefs is that he is "reassured by the capacity of people" to deal with human rights  issues in an effective and compassionate manner. As a result, his efforts are magnified by an enormous grassroots movement, Kiva.org, and that is reason for optimism.

The interesting part, to me, is that Mr. Kristof's  medium of choice is story-telling, the oldest form of communication. As a New York Times journalist, he has refined the art of listening to people that he interviews, often conversing with them in their own language, then telling their stories to the world. Likewise, Greg Mortensen who was present that evening, attributes his great success in building schools in Central Asia to mainly one thing: listening to the people. In his book Three Cups of Tea he tells the stories of  sitting down to tea with tribal people around a fire and seeking their inner most dreams and hopes. He develops  trust and working relationships which leads to seemingly impossible mutual accomplishments. It seems all of Bozeman supported Mr. Mortensen for the Nobel Peace prize for this grassroots work. However, it does appear that the prize was awarded to further the hopes and international dialogue of people everywhere.
The need to rely on communication skills and interpersonal relationships has never been greater. We can roll out the protests or the military or missiles, but to what end? Mr. Kristof flatly said that going the grassroots route was the best way to begin to solve national and international problems. This means individuals at a local level must meet, organize, and set goals, all of which depends upon having the necessary communication skills.  

Dialogue is a two-sided or multi-sided interchange of ideas, a discourse involving thoughtful verbal or written discussion. People meet in their homes, a church, bar, or at a sporting event, and the common denominator is individuals talking to one another, some of it thoughtful, some not so much. We ought to be thankful that a free exchange of ideas is possible in this country, but even then, the lack of adequate communication skills often inhibits meaningful communication at every level of our society.  

The notion of thoughtful verbal or written communication is rapidly being lost in communication media. The increasingly shrill talk shows seem to exploit discussion for self-interest, a process which makes a conversation impossible. The art of discourse, an endearing remnant more likely heard on Masterpiece Theatre, seems to be marginalized on our national scene. One wonders what would happen if an open and orderly exchange of ideas became trendy, that, in our common need on the planet, we gained a new momentum for taking a time out and talking about our problems.

In some sense the often mediocre quality of public education (as cited by Kristof in a recent column) has ill-prepared folks to talk with each other. From the shopping mall to entertainment or international diplomacy, too often the authoritarian voice punctuates the communication.  I recently overheard a young woman in the cooking utensil aisle of a department store appealing for a certain pan. Her partner seemed unembarrassed to loudly assert, "You can’t cook, so why should I listen to you? Your mother can’t cook either. I'm picking out the pans.” A toddler explored cookware on the lower shelf near their feet. If this public conversation seemed abusive, I wonder what the child might be exposed to at home. 

The essence of the interchange was that the woman was undeser-ving of respect, and the language portrayed the partner as being immature. Neither adult acted as though this display was unusual and indeed this disrespect is all too common in countless relationships.

Relationship or marital therapy first lays the groundwork for respectful communication between the individuals. A role reversal exercise could be used to cast each person in the opposite position so that they might experience what it feels like to hear themselves. The woman in the department store would have a difficult time confronting her abuser.  For many women and men, this type of verbal usage may seem benign to them but constitutes emotional abuse that penetrates so deeply that they are unaware of what has happened. However, they are aware that they often feel disrespected and unheard.

In business and entertainment, role models exert a powerful influence over the type and level of engagement between individuals.  Donald Trump's "You’re fired" makes me cringe. That this denigrating abuse by authority serves as entertainment defies imagination. Why destroy the sense of dignity of the employee when a mutual discussion regarding the termination might leave both  parties with some positive outcome. Certainly most businesses conduct their affairs in a respectful and equitable manner, but the recession may be triggering an appalling number of layoffs that add insult to injury.

From the home to the office and outer world, the need for improved communication skills is urgent in order to meet the challenges of our time. Kristof and Mortensen demonstrated so powerfully the need to listen as being even more important than talking. Listening and sharing could heal a lot of parenting and relationship problems.  

People are beginning to converse as they form grassroots movements, face common threats, and maximize the use of technology for interchanges.  In doing so they promote a new culture of maturity, a validation of respectful communication that benefits everything from the raising of children to securing human rights.  Maybe the 21st century will be known as the Age of Discourse, a confirmation of Nicholas Kristof's faith in the capacity of people to rise to the greater good and ultimately treat each other with human dignity.

Jan Elpel, Psy.D., is a retired marriage and family therapist who advocates for services for low income families.








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