Listening Across the Aisle
Mariandl Hufford

Every Friday since the fall, a few minutes after 12:00 p.m., upper school girls file into our STEAM Studio, many of them with lunches in hand. Most Fridays, with furniture pushed aside, the room fills to capacity; a tell tale sign that on this day, we will be discussing a topic near and dear to students’ hearts. These Friday Forums, our designated Making Caring Common Project in partnership with Harvard University, were established to strengthen the fabric of our upper school community.

Like any community, we are comprised of girls and teachers who represent many voices and perspectives. It makes us vibrant, and real, and joyful, and sometimes, contrarian. We are, collectively, after all, a direct reflection of the passionate and intelligent people that learn and grow together in our school. Within the bonds of this sisterhood, our small community is not immune to the increasingly polarizing diatribes that fill our news feeds. It seems that with each passing day, screaming headlines overwhelm our ears and eyes to the point of saturation -- making it harder still to see and to hear what should really be noticed and heard.

That is why Making Caring Common issued its international call to action — and why we joined this important initiative. In our Friday Forums, our girls submit topics they want to discuss and teachers facilitate the conversations. The discussions have been wide-ranging: we have addressed sexual harassment, taking a knee during the national anthem, gun violence, race, and net neutrality, to name a few. A teacher kicks off each discussion with a relevant quote, or some data points, and asks each participant to reflect on her own point of view. We are very good, in girls’ schools, at helping girls find their voices. Our girls are not shrinking violets, and their convictions are often deeply and strongly held. But what we all have to get better at, students and certainly also adults, is listening to one another. Often, it seems, we listen to help ourselves strengthen the counter argument we will make as soon as the speaker rests. Much less often, we listen to understand another perspective.

Ironically, on this day that Making Caring Common is launching its initiative world-wide, I sat in a workshop, facilitated by author and speaker Margaret Seidler, in which we explored the notion that “values are best held in pairs.” Ms. Seidler’s point is that for each truth there is an equally valid and equally incomplete polar opposite. Breathing, she explained, is not just inhaling; it is exhaling in equal measure. The focus of the workshop was on leadership styles; we were asked to identify for ourselves those modes of operating that were our most preferred. I, for example, see myself as valuing creativity, which means that its polar opposite, logic, might be a trait I avoid using in my work.

This notion that, in order to perform at our most productive, we must consider both sides or both poles resonated deeply with me. What if, in addition to valuing creativity, I applied a logical framework to a problem I was solving? My work would be more fully realized and I would avoid the blind spots that may limit the outcome of my task.

Applied to our Friday Forums, I would argue that these facilitated conversations create opportunities for each girl to listen to and truly hear an opposing viewpoint. There is no shouting over one another, only respectful dialogue. Our skilled facilitators honor and value each girl who courageously speaks her truth, just as they honor and value anyone who expresses an opposing truth. When the facilitator reflects back the thinking of each girl, he or she allows for the argument to sink in more fully, helping each person in the room listen “across the aisle.”

Our upper school community has, in just a few short months, come to rely on these conversations as a place where what lies on hearts and minds can be authentically expressed and is guaranteed to be truly heard.

While our girls represent different backgrounds, religions, and experiences, these discussions have only deepened respect for one another and strengthened the bonds of sisterhood that make our school unique.

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