A study published in March by researchers at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Virginia found that only 1% of one-on-one conversations end when both people want them to. Another 21% end when one or the other person is ready—meaning that 78% conclude with both participants dissatisfied with the duration. “At a moment in history when billions of people have been forced to curtail their normal social activities,” note the study’s authors, “a scientific understanding of conversation could hardly be timelier.”
In defense of our species, this same research reveals that we are more than twice as likely to be aware than unaware when our counterpart in a conversation thinks it has lasted too long. In fact, in the vast majority of these situations, both people believe that the conversation has overstayed its welcome—and yet we keep talking. We are less adept, however, at knowing when the other person is actually enjoying the exchange. Approximately one conversation in five ends before either party is ready to leave it.
If we were to define good listening as the ability to know how long another person would like to remain in conversation, the results of this study would suggest that only 12% of people are good listeners. We need to do better, and indeed I would defend the inculcation of listening skills as an educational objective that is at least as valuable to MICDS students as a high GPA or a competitive ACT score. I am proud of the efforts of our faculty in this direction, from the adoption of the Responsive Classroom curriculum in Beasley to the use of “spider web” discussions in our English classes to the structure of our Middle and Upper School advisory group meetings to numerous other instances besides. Within the context of growing social and political polarization in our nation and the hyper-verbal idiom of our Information Age, the capacity to be a good listener may be more important now than it ever has been for our collective betterment. “An enemy,” says the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, “is someone whose story you have not heard.”
At a panel discussion of liberal arts education hosted in Graham Chapel at Washington University in April 2019, the American philosopher Cornel West cited the contention of Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne that “he who would teach men to die would teach them to live.” West elaborated: “Learning how to die is mustering the courage to examine yourself, criticize yourself, mustering the courage to examine your world. There is no growth, no development, there is no maturity without that kind of examination. And when you let a certain assumption go, a certain prejudice go, that’s a form of death. Rebirth, regeneration, and awakening are what an education is about.” We begin our renewal and our education every day by listening.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. Congratulations to the Class of 2021 for celebrating their final day of school this week. My best wishes to all of you and your loved ones for a happy weekend ahead.
Head of School