One of the lessons shared by Thich Nhat Hanh was this: "For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them."
To listen to someone else’s viewpoint, with an open mind. And to listen, with curiosity, with the goal of learning more about their perspective.
To set aside everything we believed to be true and be open to a new experience, one which might be so very different from what we have known.
This approach to listening does not come without challenges. Our viewpoints are often based on our lived experiences so it is understandable that we may feel particularly vulnerable or sensitive when a specific topic is raised.
One of the most significant learning moments for me came about during my 3rd year of university. I was assigned to facilitate a discussion for our psychology seminar and the topic for that week was about violence against women. I was dreading the thought of having to facilitate this discussion, knowing that I have strong viewpoints about this topic and I am a fierce advocate for the need for society to protect women’s safety.
Fortunately at the end of our lecture, the professor mentioned that he would be sitting in on the seminars that week, to ensure that the discussions would be respectful to all participants. He realized that this might be a heated debate and at the same time, he wanted us to learn how to facilitate a difficult discussion.
To this day, I still remember how skillfully he introduced the topic. He created a safe learning environment where we were all able to share our thoughts. I remember listening to a male colleague’s perspective which was completely different from mine. I was able to consider his point of view. I didn’t share his viewpoint, but I was able to listen to it.
Thinking back to that day in the seminar, I came to realize that all the viewpoints shared were equally understandable. The women who expressed their concerns for their safety, their views were all based on what life had presented to them. Their fears were real.
One of the male participants in the seminar was struggling to understand the extent of the fear and anger that many of the women were sharing. My sense at the time was that it wasn’t an unwillingness on his part to understand, more that he had never had to personally deal with the issues that were being raised.
What I admired most about my professor that day was that he made the effort to be there to support us. His very presence in the room created a sense of safety, as he sat quietly observing at the front of the room.
This was one of the first opportunities I had to participate in a group discussion on a challenging topic. I left the seminar with a sense of relief that the discussions had gone well.
The professor demonstrated to us that it is possible to have a difficult conversation if there is mutual respect and a genuine interest in learning about someone else’s point of view.
The difference, though, is that the seminar setting is a structured environment where participants are somewhat prepared for what will unfold. So the challenge becomes, in our everyday interactions with those around us, how do we create a similar sense of safety to share our thoughts with others?
Maybe the answer is simply to slow down, take a moment to pause and to remember. That every person’s life experiences are uniquely theirs. And from that mindset, the opportunity to learn from each other is limitless.