Cultivating Community spring series begins with emphasis on active listening

(Ash Dean/Staff Photographer)

As the semester proceeds and assignments amass, effectively engaging with and listening to people can fall by the way side. The most recent installation of the Cultivating Community series sought to provide a crash course. 

Students, staff and community members convened in the MacVittie College Union ballroom on Monday Feb. 5 for this semester’s first Cultivating Community session. 

Where previous iterations focused on improving the inclusivity of the college and responding to instances of discrimination, this prioritized active listening.

In a statement at the beginning of the event, President Denise Battles explained why she felt the dialogue was important for the college.  

“Communicating in a diverse society really is an issue that is important to our campus, but when you look at what’s happening in our country and our world, this really is a timely conversation,” Battles said. “It requires thoughtfulness, nuance, reflection and giving each other a chance, an opportunity to express themselves.” 

Associate professor of communication and event co-organizer Meredith Harrigan began the event by exposing the misconceptions people sometimes have about what it means to genuinely listen to others. While some perceive listening to be a function exclusive to the ears, Harrigan demonstrated other forms of listening. 

“Listening is much more than using our ears,” Harrigan said. “It involves using our eyes, it involves focus and it involves heart and certainly our minds to think. So that’s the way we should understand listening.”

Following some opening remarks, the event was organized around 30 minutes of small-group discussions.

Groups of about six or seven students, staff and community members examined how the college could prioritize listening. Participants collaborated while making an imagined playlist of speeches, songs, videos, poems and any other type of media that involved listening. 

Communication major junior Udeshi Seneviratne found this reframing instructive throughout the small group discussions. 

“I thought it was a really creative way for people on-campus to share opinions and thoughts about listening to others,” Seneviratne said. “I could see even the different definitions from people on-campus and how they value listening to others.” 

As the smaller groups wrapped up their discussions of themes, the event returned to a larger scale format where participants could share their groups’ conclusions. 

Individuals expressed that their groups questioned why some people were more willing to listen and some more accustomed to talk; others discussed the importance of listening to people they don’t agree with in order to better understand and empathize with them. Each group interpreted and responded to the questions in their own unique way, assessing identity, power, communication and community. 

The themes of separating hearing from listening stood out to Seneviratne as an important concept to remember throughout day-to-day life. Such skills benefit students in and out of school. 

“We don’t really look at listening as something important to think about on a daily basis,” Seneviratne said. “To really listen, you have to stop talking. It’s really important to emphasize, to take a step back and truly listen to others and empathize with them.”