Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting a man named Andrew Forsthoefel. There was something about the way he listened and engaged with people that I instantly liked and made me curious about him. He had this way of drawing out of me and others around him the important parts, the parts we don’t often speak of with people we’ve just met. When I heard his story, I realized that he’d had lots of training.
One big important part for Andrew was what he learned while walking across the United States, from the east coast to the west coast. He wore out several pairs of shoes — five? six pairs? And he wore a sign that said, “Walking to listen.” He recorded conversations he had with people along the way.
When I listened to the part where he sees a bunch of young men ahead of him on the tracks, and he strides forward to talk with them, despite feeling a pang of apprehension, I couldn’t help but think of a similar experience described by John Muir, more than a hundred years before.
The part where he gets giddy with the freedom of the open road before him and starts singing is wonderful.
And the stories and advice and songs and gifts of the people he meets are also wonderful. And how he shares what he’s learned without hitting you over the head with it, because he’s still in the daily process of figuring it out, forgetting, remembering those moments of grace and beauty that he witnessed, was, and is part of.
I highly recommend the radio piece, “Walking Across America: Advice for a Young Man,” about his walk across America.
What’s it like to have a conversation with a friend where you feel like you learn something about your friend, you learn something about yourself, and you see the world in an entirely new way?
I’m grateful to have had a number of conversations like that. One was a conversation with one of my best friends, Andrew. We were in a forest, taking a well-earned moment to rest and talk, and watch our camp groups having fun on a low ropes course we had set up early that morning. The conversation was about how we can make life the best it can be while we are alive. It felt like more than just words, too, because we had just made something together. We had an idea for setting up our own low ropes course, and we made it happen, all in the span of a day. The conversation really changed the way I viewed what true friendship and sharing of dreams can do.
I just listened to a talk by a radio host named Celeste Headlee. She gives 9 tips for better conversations, but said that if you just take one and master it, it will make you a better conversationalist.
I’m doing one of those things right now. “If you want to pontificate, write a blog,” she said. She said that conversations are for listening, for a balance between talking and listening, for push-back and learning.
One other thing she mentioned is harder (for me, at least) to follow.
#6 “Don’t equate your experience with theirs.”
There is legitimate sharing. However, there’s a difference between sharing common experiences and sharing a big celebration or a big loss. In times like those, it’s best not butt in, equating your experience with theirs. Some times, it’s best just to listen, because, “It’s not the same, it is never the same.” And how are you going to understand their unique experience if you’re too busy trying to explain what you felt in a similar, but different, situation? There’s a time and place for the universal. Everyone suffers. And everyone’s situation is a little bit different.
This goes for teachers, too. I’ve heard it from a number of veteran teachers that the best thing to do with your students is to have a conversation.