Friday, December 10, 2010

Fresh Eyes

A few years ago at work I was talking to a potential funder about some innovative work we were doing with our public libraries. Many urban youth are beginning to use the libraries more often. It might be because they are one of the few places left that are safe for kids to go to. Or perhaps its because they can get access to computers...who knows?

But being loud, boisterous and mostly youth of color, the (often white female) librarians were having trouble with these kids...behavior was escalating and without seeing other options, the cops were often called to intervene.

So we were training librarians on how to better interact with these kids. Hold them accountable..yes, but also engage them. This was producing amazing results when you looked at the police calls to the libraries.

When I got done explaining all of this, the woman I was talking to suggested that perhaps we should talk to a similar program. It turns out this other program was offering tutoring for kids in the libraries.

I realized that she hadn't understood what I was talking about at all.

As I reflected on this experience (because its happened more than once at work), I began to think about what we're learning about how our brains work. Since we tend to take in WAY more stimuli than we can process, we develop patterns that are familiar to us. So when we see/hear something new, we tend to place it in a pattern that has already developed. The woman I was talking to understood tutoring programs. What I was talking about was an approach she probably hadn't been exposed to before - at least not in the context of libraries.

Right now I'm thinking alot about how communication about politics on the blogs breaks down. I think some of the same principles are at work.

Rather than hearing what an individual says in a particular moment, we tend to do one of two things:

1. If we've talked to the person before, we think we know them. We've developed a pattern about them based on our previous conversations and we put what they say into that pattern. This is especially true if we've had an emotional response to the person in question. If we have gotten angry at them in the past, we hear what they are currently saying through that anger.

2. If we've not talked to the person before, certain words and phrases bring up a pattern and we tend to place them in it without hearing the newness they might bring to the topic.

What this kind of communication does is that it enables us to retain our patterns and the opinions we have already formed. Its hard to break through with fresh ideas.

As I watch this happen, I have to ask myself how often I do it. There's not much that's more important to me than the process of challenging my thoughts and learning. So I write this to say (mostly to myself) that I want to try to enter every conversation with fresh eyes.

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