Writing a column demands that something be said – a position asserted or a side taken. Coming forth with a valid, well-thought opinion on a certain issue cannot be ignored as a useful tool to articulate one's perspective.
Despite my belief in effectively defending one's perspective, I have certainly learned one thing: the greatest skill, perhaps, is one that can continuously implemented in powerful ways – the ability to listen.
At the risk of sounding cliché, I maintain that sometimes silence is the most effective tool to truly understand an issue or perspective. Words are wonderful, one of humanity's most powerful tools; however, the ability to not just hear, but listen, to the experience and perspective of another person cannot be overlooked as one of the best communication skills available.
Listening does not imply weakness, or lack of opinion – rather it is the humbling of oneself to another, and the results can be quite powerful. The best communicators I know are often the best listeners.
The opportunities to listen and understand people are numerous on a college campus, but my most memorable encounter with the power of listening occurred over the summer in the Ozarks.
At the sports camp where I was a counselor, the agonizingly hot, humid temperatures were bad – but my particular cabin of 13-year-old girls could be arguably considered worse. This group had notoriously earned the title as the most obstinate, uncooperative cabin of girls in the camp; at first, I watched with distress as my fellow counselors bonded with sweet, excited, cooperative campers – girls who wouldn't flatly refuse to participate in activities or deliberately break rules out of pure spite.
In the first few days, I contemplated the entire month looming ahead – and felt filled with dread. The camp leaders would have to hold an intervention if the behaviors didn't improve.
Yet, one weekend – in the middle of a river, while canoeing downstream for hours with the girls – something dramatically changed.
Without even realizing, I earned the girls' respect (and obedience) in a simple but enduring way: by listening.
I sat in the canoe, asking questions, and listened to the snippets of stories that haltingly came forth from these young women.
The results stunned me. Many of them came from broken homes; half had experienced life without a stable father figure. One's mother had been in and out of prison since her birth, and she lived with her grandparents because her mom didn't want her in her life. Another had bounced around foster homes over the years and had experienced sexual abuse. Little by little, by simply listening, I learned more about the backgrounds that so profoundly shaped these young girls – and my understanding of their actions and our subsequent relationships deepened in ways I couldn't have imagined.
The broken pasts, the hurts that these girls had experienced in their rocky home lives, were not casual coincidences; they were direct contributors to the behavioral patterns that had seemed otherwise the result of preteen angst.
These preteen girls pushed the limits in a desperate attempt to be understood, and my interest in their lives – and ability to validate their feelings – allowed me to reach a connection based on respect and trust on an entirely different level.
Hearing another's voice does not diminish your own; rather, it has the ability to change (or strengthen) one's pre-existing belief. Truly connecting with the girls in my cabin required that I stopped talking and started listening – something that can potentially be carried over into many aspects of life.
Allowing another to discuss his or her perspective does not imply that one cannot hold fast to an underlying conviction or belief; one's beliefs will prove steadfast against the various perspectives if they are indeed true. Yet allowing stories and experiences to be heard cannot be underestimated.
Don't just speak and hear – listen. There is a difference, and it can change everything.
Sarah Hagaman is a sophomore in English. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.