Over the past two months, I’ve been meeting weekly with 51 fellow MBAs and two courageous (or crazy) professors to discuss complex and divisive topics in American society. From parsing through the far-reaching impacts of automation to exploring all the ways that religion seeps into the workplace, we have attempted to cover a lot in a limited amount of time.
As you can imagine, it hasn’t always been easy.
In our attempts to comprehend the varying and oft-times conflicting viewpoints on issues like the role of immigration in America’s economic growth, there have been a range of emotions felt in the room. There have been instances of reflection, understanding, and surprise as well as moments of confusion and frustration. And all of the above could be experienced within the first hour of our three-hour sessions.
Yet, each week we all returned ready to share, listen, and learn; fully committed to the belief that these conversations are necessary. We recognize what a rare opportunity (and privilege) it is to get a better understanding of how these issues drive division and do so in the company of engaged individuals with differing perspectives. However, this opportunity is not without its challenges. Part of the difficulty stems from realizing how poorly equipped we are to have these types of conversations. You can find classes on the art of persuasion or courses centered on crafting an effective argument, but few focus on simply listening.
Luckily, there are organizations like Better Angels that are working to improve people’s ability to talk — just talk — across difference. In our last class, two volunteer instructors representing “Blues” and “Reds” demonstrated what it looks like to converse with another person with an opposing stance without the need to persuade, pushback, or provoke. Instead of teaching us how to talk, they concentrated on teaching us how to listen. Listening well starts with genuine curiosity – about a topic, an experience, a person. And with that curiosity comes good questions that get to the heart of what someone cares about and why.
While we’ve had the chance to practice our “listening’ skill in the safety of classroom, we’ll be put to the test as we head to our respective destinations — my group to Decatur, Alabama and the other to Youngstown, Ohio. Both cities represent parts of America that few MBAs in schools like CBS ever get to know, yet represent the experience of millions of people across the country.
Of course, this trip also means we as students are headed towards a number of conversations that will require us to talk across difference. As hard as that may be, it will enable us to grow and learn in so many new ways.
So, with a little curiosity, mixed with compassion, and a lot of listening, let’s see what we learn.