Browsing the blog archives for July, 2010

Listen? Stop Just Hearing!

Robert V. Taylor & Paul Donoghue

Attentive listening is life transforming.  Paul Donoghue and Mary Siegel, authors of Are You Really Listening? Keys to Successful Communication join me in a blog converstion about the art and practices of listening.  Their wisdom invites us to join the thousands who have worked with them in allowing listening to transform our lives, relationships, workplaces and communities – beginning with you.

RVT:  In a culture filled with noise and instant responses is there a place for listening to become a positive life-affirming skill for people?  Perhaps even celebrated?

PD & MS:  Today we need time away from all the noise and distraction to listen to ourselves—our feelings, needs, thoughts.  We need to listen quietly to those we love no matter how occupied we think we are.  A very busy priest who headed a large religious order was asked if he meditated.   He answered, “Yes, I meditate a half hour each day.”  When he was asked, “But what do you do when a crisis occurs and you are in constant demand?”  He responded, “Then I meditate an hour a day.”

RVT:  Workplace environments are often fast paced.  Listening is frequently perceived as a poor use of time in many workplaces.  Have you discovered ways for people to turn listening into a workplace asset?


Mary Siegel

PD & MS:  So much time is wasted in workplaces, not by people listening but by people not listening.  Tasks have to be redone because a worker failed to listen carefully to directions.  A simple example:  countless meals are returned to already busy restaurant kitchens by waiters who didn’t confirm clearly the order that was given.  Waiters can learn to repeat back an order to confirm that they have heard accurately what the patron intended.  Employees in all settings can learn the simple skill of clarifying directions or information given rather than presuming, often inaccurately, that they have heard correctly. 

RVT:  We’re each leaders in some sphere of our lives.  Are there listening tools that enhance our leadership capacity?

PD & MS:  The most effective leaders know well those whom they are leading.  A good manager, for example, knows the hopes, dreams and needs of the people who report to her.  To attain this knowledge she has to listen.  The same holds true for the parent, the priest, and the teacher. 

RVT:  Is it possible for listening skills to turn around a personal or workplace relationship?

PD & MS:  Absolutely.  We consulted with an oil company that was riddled with dissension between the oilmen and the financial services personnel.  Each side, formed by entirely different cultures, was judging the other harshly.  These judgments triggered hurt and anger and resulted in very unproductive lack of cooperation.  When we were able to facilitate each group to listen to the other they were amazed that they shared so many values and agreed upon so many issues.  They learned to respect one another and to value their different contributions to the company’s success.  Difference can be divisive, but, through understanding, can be richly complementary. 

RVT:  What do you say to the person who listens well and persists in hoping that another will develop the same skills in order to strengthen the relationship?  Is this a use of negative energy or is it beating your head against the wall?


PD & MS: It depends.  Sometimes it is fruitful in a relationship to lead by example.  Generally, we want to listen as skillfully as possible to our partners trusting that our consistent empathic attention will invite him or her to listen in return.  Sometimes, however, the more attentive partner will need to speak assertively and with self-respect regarding his or her need to be heard.  Such assertion demands skill and is the subject of our new book to be published in September, We Really Need to Talk.  But sometimes a person has to “know when to fold” and when to stop pursuing a loving response that is simply not forthcoming. 

RVT:  The art of listening seems to be as much about a way of life, a way of engaging with ourselves and others as much as it is about tools and techniques for listening.  Are there steps to cultivate this art in our lives?

Paul Donoghue

PD & MS:   Well put, Robert.  Listening is an art, a skill and a way of living.  In a Carson McCuller’s story a fellow sitting alone in a café talks to a young paper boy about his life.  He tells the boy that his wife has left him since he had not been ready to love her.  The man says that he first needed to listen to the uniqueness of a rock and then a tree and then an animal before he was ready to listen deeply to a person.  We need to orient ourselves to truly listen with appreciation to the world around us.  That is a way of life not just a communication skill.  

RVT:  I’ve come to believe that listening is a spiritual practice.  Are their insights that you have about this?

PD & MS:  Robert, you value listening as we do, not only as an essential interpersonal communication skill, but as a way of being in the world.  Listening is open, receptive attention to what is most real and what is most beautiful about someone or something.  We listen to the beauty of a sunset and to the beauty of our grandchild.  We listen to the truth in a work of art and the truth in our spouse.  Such listening challenges us to be alert.  The Prophet Elijah climbed Mount Horeb to listen for Yahweh.  There was a mighty wind that shattered rocks, but Yahweh was not in the wind.  There was an earthquake and a fire, but Yahweh was in them.  Then came a gently breeze and in that quiet, Yahweh came to Elijah.  We have to turn off the noise within us and outside us to hear what life, what God, is saying to us.

Share your stories of transformative listening here

Order Are You Really Listening? Keys to Successful Communication by Paul Donoghue and Mary Siegel here

Join Robert’s YouTube conversations – click here

Visit Robert’s website – click here

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67 Minutes to Compassion? Mandela’s Human Calculation

Robert V. Taylor

Can 67 minutes make a difference? The organizers of Mandela Day believe that 67 minutes of compassionate action is one way to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18th.  It’s not about the minutes.  It is about keeping the remarkable legacy of this iconic man alive. It is about the human connection.

Nelson Mandela turns 92 on July 18, 2010.  He is increasingly frail.  It is difficult to imagine the world without his towering moral presence among us.  On his 90th birthday Mandela spoke about the cause of freedom for all that his life has been devoted to.  “After 90 years of life, it is time for new hands to lift the burdens” he said.  “It is in your hands now.” His legacy and moral authority live on when we share in his vision through what we do.  There is nothing frail about this legacy.

His lifelong legacy about democracy, freedom, equality, respect, diversity, responsibility and reconciliation are unique.  But it is his generosity of spirit and compassion that reverberate so powerfully.  They are the markers of his spirit and the quest to be fully human, fully alive. He is iconic because his compassion and generosity of spirit are an invitation to cultivate those same qualities in our own lives and work.

Nelson Mandela

In 1998 I participated with Mandela in a memorial service in New York City to celebrate the life of Trevor Huddleston. Huddleston was an English monk and priest whose book, Naught for Your Comfort, revealed to the world the brutality of apartheid.  Against this deliberate crushing of the human sprit committed in the name of God, Huddleston pointed to a more inclusive, justice seeking and compassionate God.

The memorial service in New York was scheduled so that Mandela could be present to participate in honoring this humble man.  The 5,000 people gathered that afternoon heard Mandela’s affection for Huddleston.  They noticed that each man shared a profound joy in our oneness as people. They heard that the smallest actions we take in life add up.  What we do matters.

The call to action of Mandela Day to give 67 minutes to make the world a better place embodies the idea that each small thing we do is important. Each of the suggested minutes represents one year that Mandela has given his life to in the cause of freedom for all.

Is this just a gimmick?  The question is answered by how we think about using those minutes.  I immediately imagine what it would mean to watch Invictus with a young person who is part of the orbit of my life.  Some of those minutes would be used in talking about the movie.  Not only to re-introduce young people to Mandela’s legacy but to engage the questions of how his example gets lived out on the playing field, in the classroom and in life.

In the film Invictus, Mandela’s senior aide expresses the frustration that many in his circle felt about his keen interest in the predominantly white national rugby team winning the World Cup.  She tries to make sense of it by telling him it must be a “political calculation”.  He responds by saying, “It is a human calculation.”   It is a telling moment.  It stands in stark contrast to the political calculations that we have come to accept as a norm from so many leaders in multiple fields.  The human calculation is a mantra for leadership and everyday living.

The human calculation shifts the way we think of using the 67 minutes of service and tribute to Mandela. Mandela’s compassion reflects the compass of his life, that every human being has the capacity for goodness.  His compassion reflects the passion with which he believes that together is always better than the forces which divide.  The human calculation reflects a generosity of spirit forged in the most arduous of circumstances. 

67 minutes may not seem like much.  But it establishes a practice, a way of doing and a way of being.  Nothing that we do is wasted! It’s a reminder that we each play a part in polishing the world.  It is in our hands.

Share your stories of 67 minutes or the human calculation here or post your blog comments below!

You might enjoy Robert’s YouTbue video on Being a Repairer of the World

Read the book that inspired the movie Invictus.  Discover Desmond Tutu’s Made for Goodness here

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Heartless Youth? Growing Empathy in Our Kids

Robert V. Taylor

Are our youth heartless?  A new University of Michigan survey suggests this might be the case.  My personal experience and field research with parents suggests that there may be another story.  It has to do with us and the role we play in the lives of young people in our orbit.

Today’s college students are 40% less empathetic than the same age group in 1980 according to a study by Sara Konrath published in The New York Times.  That’s an alarming statistic. It has implications for all of us about compassion, empathy and kindness to one another. I’ve heard immediate reactions blaming technology and social media.  That’s a cheap blame game. 

My on the ground conversations with parents all reveal that the greater empathy killers may be adults.  Almost every adult has young people in the orbit of our lives.  If it takes a village to raise a child, do we care about the messages we send by our actions to young people?   

There are five steps that each of us can incorporate into our lives and, by implication, those with whom we interact.  They have to do with values, giving, service, stories and gleaning.

Values.  The actions we take, the choices we make as adults are like Tweets.  They are powerful shorthand communications to the young people round us.  One mother told me about taking her young child to the shelter for homeless women that she volunteered at once a month. 

The women of the shelter gravitated to her daughter.  “Tell us about your school. Do you have a home to live in? Do you have friends?” they wanted to know.  As mother and daughter left the shelter the young girl said, “It’s really cold outside Mom; do all women have a place to sleep?”  Her Mom believes in truthful answers and so she said, “No, but these women do.  That’s why we need places like this to provide a bed until they can get a home.”

Years later this same child orchestrated efforts in a local community to raise money to feed the hungry.  A value had been tweeted to her daughter.  A child had created a human connection with people she would not ordinarily meet.

Giving.  The unique interests of young people invite giving.  A father and son have bonded in their mutual love of baseball.  Baseball is the passion in this young man’s life.  This father and son activity has become an opportunity to give.  This summer the son is volunteering in a baseball camp in the Dominican Republic.  Understanding and empathy will be shaped by this experience –for the baseball coach and the campers.

There is no hierarchy in giving.  One parent offered this wisdom, “Let your children’s passions drive their giving.” Adults can add context.  Holiday celebrations – from Chanukah to Ramadan, to the Festival of Lights and Christmas – invite conversation about what they mean and the transformation that they point to.  Secular holidays from – July Fourth to Labor Day and Martin Luther King – invite stories about giving of ourselves to something larger than our self-interest.

Opportunities to give of ourselves are bountiful.  When young people, encouraged by adults, share their passions with others they discover common ground with others.

Service.  Parents repeatedly talk about the importance of service projects.  Some even select schools which place a significant emphasis on service for their children.  One parent told me that the most important service projects for her children have come from her children’s seemingly “silly” ideas. “Follow the lead of your kids” she urged.

Her six year old had experienced a homeless tent encampment and was determined to make peanut butter and honey sandwiches for people living there.  Knowing that these particular sandwiches might not be the most helpful food to make this mom did not says that it was a “silly” idea.  Instead they agreed to take food to the camp on a pre-determined future day.  In the build up to it, mom and daughter went shopping for food items that could be used in the camp.  On the scheduled delivery day they took the bags of food along with a small platter of peanut butter and honey sandwiches.

A parent listened to the lead and intuition of her child.  It became an opportunity to talk about the food that might be most needed but also honored the heartfelt idea behind the sandwiches.  Several parents spoke to me about the importance of intuitive, spontaneous service ideas generated by young people.  Adult awareness and listening to the desire to serve is as illuminating as the orchestrated service projects of a school, faith or community group.

Margaret Larson and Robert V. Taylor discuss Empathy in Our Kids - see link below to show on New Day, KING5

Stories!  The adults who took time to share the stories of their lives expanded my world and engaged my imagination as a child.  A young person’s experience can be an equally powerful story.  A mom accompanied her nine year old daughter on a choir trip to Nicaragua.  Arriving a few days before the rest of the group, they were given a tour of a garbage dump where children lived and scavenged for food.  

The guide offered this advice about a potentially harrowing experience, “Look for one child in the dump.  Concentrate only on that one child.  Look into his or her face.”  A young boy was among the first to climb onto a newly arrived garbage truck hoping for the first choice of trash from which to eat.  As the young girl focused on him he tried to stare her down and finally broke out in a broad smile, waved and ran off.

That night the daughter did not want to write in her Nicaragua journal about the experience but asked her mom to.  “Only if you let me read back to you what I’ve heard you say to make sure I’ve it right” said the mom.  Now headed to college this young woman never forgets the story of the young boy foraging for food in a garbage dump.  It is part of her story about compassion, empathy and kindness.

An innovative program offered by the organization, Bridges to Understanding, uses technology for digital storytelling.  Young people across the world share digital stories.  A child in the United States listens to and experiences the story of a child in India, Ghana or Colombia.  Technology is not the enemy!

Modeling how to tell stories and encouraging the telling of stories invites imagining living in the shoes of another person.  Imagination births empathy, compassion and kindness.

Glean.  No matter your own spiritual tradition gleaning from the wisdom of faith traditions is a way to invite reflection on values, service, giving and stories.  How does the Buddhist concept of happiness for all people relate to the experiences of adults and young people?  Is there a meeting point between this and Christian notions of love and compassion, Jewish ideas of repairing the world and Muslim injunctions to give to good works?

Gleaning from the treasure trove of spirituality is about more than the wisdom offered.  It becomes an opportunity to talk with young people about the people who practice a variety of faith traditions.  Gleaning invites imagining the life of a Buddhist child in Bhutan, a Christian in Ethiopia, a Jew in Argentina, a Muslim in Indonesia, and a Sikh in India or a Hindu in London.    

The plunging rates of empathy in college students will shift to the degree that adults understand that we each create encouragement about kindness, compassion and empathy by the way we engage with the youth in our orbit. Our values, giving, service, stories and gleaning are on display with every action and word we take. 

Empathy killers or empathy creators?  We’re all in this together.

Share your stories of growing empathy here

Watch Robert V. Taylor talk with Margaret Larson on New Day about Growing Empathy in Our Kids

Margaret Larson & Robert V. Talyor on KING5 New Day discuss Growing Empathy in Our Kids

Looking for resources on how to discuss empathy with young people?  Go to the Resources Page to find Wendy Mogel’s books and Mr. Peabody’s Apples

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