Cultivating Listening and Conversation

"Conversation and Community" has been a theme at Taft this year and the power of active listening and engaged conversation were the focus of the day on Tuesday, October 3, when faculty members from the Stanley H. King Counseling Institute spent the day on campus. For more than half a century, the institute been a preeminent professional development group for faculty of independent schools, teaching teachers deep listening skills to strengthen their relationships with students and colleagues.

During an extended Morning Meeting, speakers Paula Chu, Roland Davis, and Sam Osherson spoke about Gestalt theory, unconscious bias, and the importance of active listening and the vulnerability that comes with being part of honest conversations, particularly those around race, gender, and sexuality.

Following the Morning Meeting, students and faculty members were invited to meet with the counselors for a Q&A in the faculty room and then in small groups throughout the day.

This is the second of three visits by the Stanley H. King Counseling Institute. In late August, counselors from the institute spent several hours presenting to and leading small group workshops with faculty members. The listening exercises faculty engaged in during the workshops built on ideas presented in Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation, which all faculty read over the summer. Chu, Davis, and Osherson will return to campus in January to lead another workshop for faculty.

The theme of cultivating conversation was first presented to students in September when Headmaster Willy MacMullen '78 welcomed students back to campus with a convocation address that focused on the power of conversation.

"Each of us—at some time and hopefully often—will engage in conversation that will better us, others, and the school," MacMullen said, in issuing a challenge and goal for the coming school year.

Conversation can shape a community, MacMullen noted, and called on students and faculty to "reclaim conversation"—to engage in dialogue that will open the door to learning about others' experiences in the world, while exploring and celebrating our commonalities. "Stay in the conversation," MacMullen advised, "listen and debate with rigor and curiosity."

"No one can promise that you won't have people disagree with you," MacMullen said, "no one can promise that you won't encounter a perspective that really unsettles you. What I hope we can promise to ourselves as a community is that we will stay in conversations, that we will listen and respect differences, that we will debate with rigor and curiosity, that we will assume the best in others, and we might elevate our understanding of each other."

"You might be tempted to conclude this is some feel-good, Kumbaya vision," MacMullen continued, "It's not. It is idealistic and aspirational, but what I am describing is intensely practical.....What I am describing is a set of skills that will ultimately separate those who can lead and those who never will."

Morning Meeting speaker Alexis Jones also took up the theme of conversation in her talk to students during Morning Meeting and a Q & A on September 21. Jones, an internationally recognized author, activist, and speaker, spoke about gender, sexuality, societal expectations and pressures, and the importance of respect.

Read or watch Headmaster MacMullen's full Convocation address

Watch the Morning Meeting by counselors from the Stanley H. King Counseling Institute