Want to Build Your Interfaith Skills? Start with Listening
December 9, 2020
In the world of interfaith, improving our listening may be the most important and fundamental step we can take to build bridges across religious divides. Yet emerging interfaith leaders may not be getting the practice they need. According to the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), less than 15% of college students participate in formal programs like interfaith dialogues, interfaith action, or religious diversity trainings where listening skills could be refined. Many more have friends of other faiths, but explicit sharing of beliefs—which involves listening to another’s worldview perspective—isn’t inherent to these relationships. Perhaps most strikingly, only a third of IDEALS respondents (32%) felt they developed a deeper skill-set for interacting with people of diverse religious and non-religious perspectives while in college.
Unfortunately, the struggle to listen well is nothing new. In a 1957 Harvard Business Review article, Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stephens asserted, “It can be stated, with practically no qualification, that people in general do not know how to listen.” Nichols and Stephens went on to describe how “emotional filters” affect whether and how we process what others share with us. As they put it,
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“In different degrees and in many different ways, listening ability is affected by our emotions. Figuratively we reach up and mentally turn off what we do not want to hear. Or, on the other hand, when someone says what we especially want to hear, we open our ears wide, accepting everything—truths, half-truths, or fiction. We might say, then, that our emotions act as aural filters. At times they in effect cause deafness, and at other times they make listening altogether too easy.”
Listening can be “too easy” when we surround ourselves with people who think and act like us. But when we engage with individuals who see the world differently, there can be an urge to “turn off” viewpoints that conflict with our beliefs. To listen well to someone with whom we disagree does not come easily—rather, it requires hard work and diligent attention. I recently had the pleasure of talking with several of Interfaith Youth Core’s alumni who learned this lesson during their college years, including Clare Stern-Burbano, who graduated from the University of North Florida in 2016:
“Listening was my biggest teacher and skill I developed in college as an interfaith leader and organizer,” noted Clare. “It’s because I heard perspectives from people my age on identities and matters I had never experienced myself that I was better able to lead interfaith conversations and activities.”
At George Washington University, Shivam Gosai helped create spaces on campus where he and his peers could openly share their beliefs and learn about the beliefs of others. From Shivam’s perspective, ensuring these interfaith exchanges were productive required leaders “being able to listen to people and facilitate conversation.”
Alumna Carolina Borjas named the importance of listening in the context of interfaith friendships. “I always pushed myself … to learn more about different religions [through] meaningful conversations with my friends from different religious backgrounds,” remarked the 2020 graduate of Pepperdine University. Carolina seemed to be describing what Caren Osten refers to as listening to understand. “We often think that we are listening,” Osten writes in Psychology Today, “but we’re actually just considering how to jump in to tell our own story, offer advice, or even make a judgment.” Conversely, listening to understand is characterized by open-mindedness and a desire to connect—two critical precursors to interfaith understanding.
Anastasia Young, who is currently pursuing her Doctor of Nursing Practice at the University of Minnesota, reflected on what she learned about listening as a student interfaith leader at Concordia College and how those lessons inform her work with patients from different religious backgrounds:
“[I have] the ability just to sit down with someone and be uncomfortable. I don’t know what they’re going to say, I don’t know how they’re going to respond, and I don’t have to agree with them. I can sit and listen, I can ask questions, and it’s not necessarily for me to impose.”
Matt Segil is also employing the listening skills he learned as a student at the University of Vermont in his current workplace. Last year, he hosted fellow middle school teachers for an interfaith series in his home. As part of the program, guests were invited to respond to questions about belief and meaning-making. When I asked Matt about the impact of this exercise—which helped him and his colleagues deepen their understanding of one another’s outlook on life—he lit up:
“It was incredible … How do I describe it … We talked about these questions and it was just like this bonding experience. It was so warm and positive. We just felt connected and it was just easier, smoother … The feeling of community [afterward] was there in a pretty robust way.”
Back in 1957, Nichols and Stephens stressed that “to be good listeners we must apply certain skills that are acquired through either experience or training.” More than 60 years later, members of our IFYC alumni network affirmed that practice in the art of listening is indeed vital, especially if we hope to see interfaith cooperation become a social norm. Furthermore, Clare, Shivam, Carolina, Anastasia, and Matt illuminated a clear path forward for higher education—engage more students in interfaith activities and interpersonal exchanges where they can strengthen their listening chops. Perhaps then we will begin to see a marked improvement in bridging religious divides both during the college years and beyond.