Learning How to Listen and Have Hard Conversations

The new Generous Listening and Dialogue Center at Tisch College of Civic Life is building a framework for productive dialogue and sharing advice for having discussions across differences

Do you think you’re a good listener? Perhaps we could all use some improvement around this critical social skill. That’s the goal of the new Generous Listening and Dialogue (GLAD) Center at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, which aims to help everyone in the Tufts community—and beyond—sharpen their listening and discussion skills.

Designed to be a center of excellence to promote dialogue across differences, the GLAD Center serves as an educational resource for Tufts and defines generous listening broadly, encompassing the art of listening to ourselves, to nature, and to others—especially when people disagree. 

The director of the GLAD Center is Kenann McKenzie, an educator, researcher, and civic leader who was previously the director of the Aspire Institute at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. She says the idea of the GLAD Center may sound simple: to listen, be present, and hear different perspectives. But the current social and political climate has made these concepts difficult to execute, she says.

“I hope the GLAD Center is a space where learning these skills is seen as essential,” she says. “But I also want it to be a space that’s affirming, safe, and healing—and where you don't have to know everything. It's hard to learn when you feel like you're going to be judged or canceled. We’ll have a standard for decorum, respect, and civility to allow people to feel like they can own their thoughts and have the space to think about how to articulate them. And they can listen to others without feeling like they need to have an answer or a solution.”

Being a dialogue leader comes naturally to McKenzie, who earned a Ph.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, and she occupies that role beyond Tufts. She serves on the School Committee in Beverly, Massachusetts, and is vice president and education chair of the North Shore Branch of the NAACP. She also hosts a podcast called The Aspiring Spirit, “because everybody's aspiring to understand themselves in the world.”

She launched the podcast early in the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of feeling isolated but having a lot of questions about the complex social issues happening in the world. It explores the cross-sections of different issues and engages in the idea of critical thinking, observing, and listening.

“As we watched pandemic issues unfold, I liked being able to tell folks it's okay to feel double-minded about things,” she says. “For example, people may have felt committed to their public schools but wanted to switch to homeschool because of COVID rates or private school because those students were attending in-person. Things we think are so easy to judge suddenly became hard to navigate. I realized that I enjoyed that space and talking to interesting people about hard social issues we care about.”

McKenzie says she looks forward to scaling up this work at the GLAD Center, which was formed in collaboration with the Vuslat Foundation. Joining her in these efforts is Deborah Donahue-Keegan, associate director of the GLAD Center and lecturer in the Department of Education, and Ji Hyang Padma, Buddhist Chaplain at Tufts. They’ve spent the past few months figuring out how they can be most useful right away and how to collaborate with other groups on campus. They landed on creating a space for renewal and restoration at the start of the new semester. Their first virtual event, scheduled for Jan. 18, will focus on faculty and staff, and a session for students is planned for later in the spring semester.

“We’ll allow time for meditation and time for sharing as a way to connect and practice listening and dialogue skills,” says McKenzie. “It’s also a way to renew our minds to be able to engage fully with students and each other.”

Tips for having difficult conversations

McKenzie aims to create discussion spaces that feel healing, affirmative, and safe. She offered these four bits of advice for anyone who may need help navigating a hard conversation or topic.

Practice equitable listening. To engage in an active listening experience, McKenzie often employs the following framework. Each person gets a turn to be the speaker, and during their turn, they have two or three minutes of time to speak uninterrupted. The other people involved are the listeners, and they’re not allowed to jump in with comments or questions. When the speaker has finished, the listeners summarize what the speaker said to demonstrate their understanding.

“It never fails to show people how much they don't get to say because they feel cut off and frustrated,” she says. “People routinely tell me, ‘Wow, that's the first time I've gotten to say all that without being corrected or critiqued.’ The fact that people feel so satiated by three minutes of uninterrupted talking is telling.”

If there are enough people, McKenzie sometimes designates someone to be the observer. They act as a quiet accountability partner to make sure participants adhere to the framework.

You don’t have to debate. In heated moments, McKenzie says it can be hard to remember that you don’t have to reply. You don’t have to retort, debate, or prove anything. “You can decide whether this is a conversation you'd like to have. Try not to feel compelled to take action or respond.”

Allow for silence. Sometimes a conversation might be emotional or triggering. In those cases, McKenzie says the concept of waiting can be helpful, to give someone an opportunity to clarify their comments. “When we allow for silence or when we respond with curiosity versus a reactive response, it can be a powerful tool to help you understand what's underlying someone's comments. Like the Buddhist saying goes: Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.”

It’s a practice that takes practice. Sometimes it can be difficult to hear a thought all the way without also thinking about responses or solutions. Tuning out those tangential thoughts takes mindful practice.

 “The whole point is you're not on duty to fix anything and you're just listening,” she says. “It’s an ongoing practice, to learn to listen generously, that isn’t necessarily perfected, but pursued.” 

Back to Top