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Our dignity and urge to survive are intimately tied in with the ways in which we make meaning out of our experiences, through the use of our intellect, our feelings and our knowledge. This capacity to make meaning can be enhanced by improving our questioning and listening skills.
In order to learn, we need a questioning frame of mind, a sensible tendency to take nothing at face value, even from those we consider to have authority in a subject. For example, try conducting a debate in your mind: take several sides in an argument. You may discuss the ethics of capital punishment. Contradict your first opinions - indeed work out arguments that attempt to prove that your most passionately held conviction is baseless. If your dearest beliefs can stand up to such examination then you may understand them better, or even understand them truly for the first time. Or be willing to change them for more realistic ones.
Another useful exercise is to challenge ideas which may not be your own but which are popularly held views, such as the varying beliefs that your parents and peers have about issues of sexuality, religion, censorship, law, and so on. Every generation has a collection of almost unquestioned assumptions that are promptly overturned by the next generation, but it may be that neither is truly objective in their thinking.
Exercises like these establish the habit of questioning - a heightened awareness that will help you understand and remember. From being the passive receptor of facts you have become the active seeker after truth.
A good teacher or tutor will thrive on being stretched by their students. They want to be pressed to justify their assertions and clarify their comments. If they are vague, it is necessary to ask them to be precise. The ‘Effective Communication’ course taught the skills of asking questions and of listening effectively. Of course, we need to ask questions to find out facts we are missing and to learn the opinions of others.
We ask ‘open questions’ to get background information, to explore opinions and to encourage discussion - for example: “What do you mean by...?” “Where have I gone wrong...?” “Why is it better to...?”
Closed questions, which can be answered in a few words, such as “In what year did that occur?” are used to find out specific facts and to get Yes/No answers. Clarifying and extending questions - “What exactly do you mean by...?” “Could you tell me more about...?” - are used to probe and obtain information in greater depth.
And then of course you need to really listen to the replies you obtain, and if necessary to make notes and to check if your interpretation and new understanding is correct.
What does the discipline of listening involve? The levels of meaning expressed by an individual may be myriad and subtle. We cannot address all of them in the immediate moment so we make choices, we select, we decide to focus on particular aspects of what is said. The words, the content, are one thing; beyond that we may try to understand what assumptions the speaker is defining or trying to communicate. Listening to the individual and having respect for his or her effort to make sense, is something totally outside of our day-to-day experiences of talking to people. In many of our conversations, people tend to take positions and they retreat into giving advice, “You should do this because...” Or we may be exchanging ideas and as soon as there is the opportunity for disagreement, each person expresses his view without consideration for the merits of what the other is saying nor for the opportunity for learning that the situation presents.
Retreat into a position of authority as a means of justifying control and power, however, results in inaccessibility to negotiation and thwarts mutual learning. When control and power become issues of central concern in a learning situation, the emphasis shifts from an open examination of assumptions; argument, justification and subterfuge become the predominant responses. Each person becomes more concerned about maintaining their position, as if their integrity is at stake. Ideas and knowledge become possessions over which one must exert control, with the focus upon maintaining one’s status, rather than sharing one’s discoveries, meanings and speculations.
One of the most difficult things to learn is to listen and see the world as the other person sees it, not just conceptually but also experientially and emotionally. If a person can experience his feelings he can make meaning out of them. The capacity to make meaning is one of the things that people begin to discover when they are heard. If two people are empathetically in communication, truly listening to one another, then true learning can take place between them.
Copyright © 2004 Gregory Mitchell - Published by Trans4mind
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