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Conversation: A lesson in listening

     More than three years deep in college, texts and tests, one of the only things I’m certain of is that to be a good student, we must be capable of good conversation.

     Every time we step foot in a classroom, every time we crack open a text, scrawl notes into our binders, open our mouths in class or begin typing that much-dreaded essay, we enter into a conversation. We are conversing with a whole host of persons—with the entire history of the field, with every professor, student and expert who has ever considered the subject at hand. And what an honor it is to converse with Newton, Plato, Liebniz, Shakespeare, Durkheim, Luther or any number of other great scholars on a near daily basis! We must do our utmost to do right by that honor. The question at hand, then, seems to be just how we go about having a good conversation.

     To me, the key seems to be in listening. Listening well, and listening more than we speak. Listening not to respond, but to hear, and to understand. Whoever we converse with—be they professor, text, peer or friend—we ought to enter into conversation always with the assumption that they have something to teach us, that we can learn from them. Apart from this, it seems impossible that we could truly learn anything. After all, it is impossible to learn when we are only half-listening, waiting only for the chance to respond, asking questions only so we can correct and tell the other why they’re not quite right. A person cannot learn what they think they already know.

     This seems almost obvious, and yet good listening is one of the rarest things to find in a person and possibly one of the hardest to achieve in ourselves. It requires great patience, great humility and great dedication in sticking with it—none of which are traits that come naturally to anyone. After all, everyone’s been there—when you’re talking and you know that the person you’re speaking to has stopped listening. You could just see a light go off in their eyes, probably because they decided how to respond and are just waiting for you to finish. And for every time this has happened to you, there have probably been at least two times you’ve done it to someone else.

     It seems that if we truly desire to learn, we must strive together towards good conversation. We must all take up humility and patience, questioning always. We must be willing to change our minds, to let our opinions shift and to allow our horizons to broaden. We must consider knowledge a goal which cannot be achieved apart from the help of one another. As Theodore Zeldin once put it, “The kind of conversation I am interested in is one in which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person.”

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