Lehigh University hosted its third Global Citizenship Conference, this year on the theme of on Friday, February 17, in Rauch Business Center. This year’s theme was “Radical Listening to Ourselves, Others and the World.”
The goal for the event was to gather academics, nonprofit professionals, educators, activists, artists, poets and others to a space where awareness could be brought to the value of active listening, as it pertains to people on an international scale. It was hosted by the Global Citizenship Center for Self, Other and World Wellbeing, within the Office of International Affairs.
Angelina Rodríguez, associate professor at Lehigh and the center's director, opened the conference by emphasizing the skill of listening, which she said she views as “necessary in any work aimed at our collective wellbeing.”
“Listening isn’t simply a skill that needs to be sharpened, expanded,” Rodríguez said. “It is also very pegged to a deep belief that others have something important to say, that stories matter, that we have things to learn from someone else outside of ourselves, and that listening is a way to support others.”
Rodríguez said people tend to listen transactionally by habit, with the belief that their listening abilities are better than they actually are. She introduced the lineup of speakers for the conference as individuals who are extraordinary listeners and who create spaces for deep listening to happen. She said they “can point the way” toward future work in hopes that global citizens can become better listeners as well.
LISTENING TO HEAL LONELINESS
The first presenters were Michael Gingerich and Tom Kaden, co-founders and chief encouragement officers of the NGO Someone to Tell It To, which is based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In a session titled “Experiences Advocating for Listening,” they explained what they have learned from 10 years of training people to listen.
Kaden said we are experiencing a “loneliness epidemic,” which is contributing to the leading cause of death in the U.S. – heart disease. He said despite that humans being hyper connected through the Internet, they are, in reality, more disconnected, as people report having fewer close friends in their lives than ever. In this day and age, how can individuals better show up for each other?
“Shaming people does not make them better,” Gingerich said. “We will meet people in any way they need.”
The two said they are not counselors, but rather listeners from a nonprofit standpoint. They said they have flown to other states to meet with families. They stressed the importance of not trying to immediately “fix” someone who is troubled, but instead, to “give them permission to feel.”
Both Gingerich and Kaden have been published multiple times in the books Chicken Soup for the Soul, and they have been invited to present at the International Listening Association (ILA) about fostering healthy relationships within social media. Their organization prides itself in going out of the way to show up for those struggling emotionally, spiritually or physically, or experiencing grief.
“Listening is healing,” Kaden said.
The pair shared personal anecdotes and what they have learned from their relationships with those in need of healing, showing that stories reach the ears of those willing to listen.
LISTENING TO FACILITATE CONNECTION
The second session, “Interfaith Listening in Professional Contexts,” presented by Suzanne Watts Henderson, a senior consultant and leader of the Faith and Health sector for Interfaith America, focused on why and how acceptance of religious diversity is positive for society, and that it requires active listening.
Watts Henderson explained that religion is still relevant to our evolving society. Increasing religious diversity in the U.S. and beyond means we must battle biases to become better listeners, specifically in workplace conversations.
She quoted the Indian political scientist Ashutosh Varshney, who once said, “Interreligious networks of engagement are the greatest predictors of peace.”
Watts Henderson told attendees to take care in how they approach conversation with others. She said humans often “respond from emotion, not reason, fearing what we don’t understand.”
To combat fear of the unfamiliar, she suggests individuals listen more closely to others so that they do not have to fear misunderstanding, which is likely to cultivate more trusting, close relationships between those of different backgrounds or affiliations.
“Tolerance is a good first step – it’s better than trying to turn you into me,” Watts Henderson said.
However, Watts Henderson said she is not a fan of the word “tolerance.” She described true listening and understanding as “taking us further” in developing genuine connection with others.
LISTENING TO FUEL HOPE
The conference ended with a session from Sonny Singh, a Sikh musician and social justice advocate based in New York City. It was called, “Chardi Kala: Radical Optimism through Deep Listening.” Chardi Kala, also the title of Singh’s recent album, means living in high spirits and refers to an obligation in the Sikh faith to stay hopeful no matter what the circumstances. Singh spoke about his work organizing in his community in New York City and working to stop the bullying of Sikh children at school. He also offered a separate session for students in the afternoon where he played from his album, accompanied by guitarist Jonathan Goldberger.
Bill Whitney, Lehigh’s assistant vice provost for experiential learning programs, said he attended the conference because the subject matter intrigued him and he respects the work that Rodríguez is doing.
Having earned his Ph.D. in theatre and drama from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Whitney said listening was a crucial part of his studies. In performing or directing theatrical productions, he said a “give-and-take” exchange of good listening is necessary to successfully tell a story. The conference’s message reinforced his experience.
“A lot of listening and conversation and human-to-human interaction is a really big, fundamental (thing) to me,” Whitney said. “I think it is a really important topic.”
Whitney said that from a meta perspective, it is interesting when people are asked to listen and cast distractions to the side, to give fully undivided attention to what's in front of them.
“I think we're not asked to do that enough,” he said. “You can kind of feel a different energy in the room that people are a little bit more connected, and a little bit less distracted and a little bit less anxious.”
In a space for collective engagement and active listening put to work, conference attendees reflected upon their current listening tendencies, learning where there may be room for improvement to foster greater understanding and connection in our world.
“We all have our biases, you know, you always have,” Whitney said. “You're always listening with some kind of internal monologue, that's just part of it, it's part of being human. But at the same time, if you can acknowledge that and let that be, while you're also listening to the other person, accepting that person… then that just becomes a deeper relationship.”