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The Art of Being Heard

Posted on April 03, 2013 by: Lisa Koss

I’m taking a painting class here in Berkeley this month (at least during those weeks when I’m not traveling).  It’s a small group of eight students, with a wonderful artist as an instructor.  She’s a real intellectual and to me the experience reflects an apprenticeship model where the instructor does most of the talking, and we students watch, listen and observe before we try out her ideas ourselves at our own easels.

In the last segment of each class, she comments on our work, and on the techniques of the great artists, using visual aids.  I notice she works hard to clearly describe what she’s seeing and her own perceptions and experiences.  I say she “works hard” because she is searching for her words as she speaks, but she does ultimately find apt and highly descriptive words that convey her points beautifully.  I sense her deeply connected to what she is saying.  Her cognitive approach has her entirely engrossed in her own thoughts, and it’s clear that we, her audience, and our experience are much less in her awareness.

My first reaction to her style was to be amused at how instructor-centric the class is.  Our group facilitation style here at Ontos tends to be very different, in that we strive to provoke as much group dialogue and discussion as we can – because it furthers engagement and group cohesion and ultimately learning.  But of course, the objectives for beginning art students are different, and I’m enjoying the experience of this different approach.

And yet I noticed something interesting this week about her particular brand of teaching.  At the end of the session, as she was again describing her observations of different art pieces, she suddenly said in exasperation “I always feel so inarticulate!”

It took me a few moments of grappling with that statement to understand it. How can she feel so inarticulate while I am experiencing the opposite?  And then it becomes obvious:  she is so much in her head as she talks that she is disconnected from the impact she is having.  In general, she rarely looks up at us, instead looking at the art piece itself, so as a result she is actually talking to herself and receiving little feedback from us as to the impact of her statements. When you don’t know if it’s getting through, you keep “working” to be clear!  (There is a cultural nuance to describe on this topic, which I’ll write about in a blog post in the near future.)

As group facilitators we see this phenomenon in many different forms and in many contexts.  You might have observed the person, for example, who often repeats himself because he feels unheard.  Why?  Perhaps a group has actually learned not to listen to him for some reason.  Or perhaps the group does not understand the importance of acknowledging each other’s statements.  Both have a similar impact on the speaker, prompting them to explain again in hopes of transmitting their message more clearly this time.  In other cases, as with my art instructor, when in doubt of being understood, all she needs to do is simply ask the question and her frustration would likely disappear.

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