The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 28, 2013

Unruffled listening is an art

— One of our reader board members was a medical administrator from a hospital affiliated with Columbia Presbyterian who was accustomed to exceeding high standards in an institution with deep pockets to support a tradition of excellence.

At every meeting, this man reveled in our shortcomings, citing examples of naiveté and ridiculing inexperience common among people learning their craft in small newspapers. He had evidence that our struggle was great. It was right there in black and white and delivered daily to our customers and he was a clipper.

This galled the managing editor, a graduate of Princeton and Stanford who was extraordinarily intelligent, uncommonly verbal and immensely proud. “We deliver our mistakes to our customers every day,” my colleague grumbled. “He gets to bury his.”

(That was not entirely true. One way or another, we could have dug up his mistakes and delivered them, as well. However, the point here was how to avoid disagreements.)

We eventually adopted a listening strategy for these sessions, one that blocked us from being defensive.

All ideas and comments were invited. Suggestions were encouraged. We could add to proposals or we could ask for elaboration. We would not dismiss, diminish or disparage criticism or rise to our own defense, unless invited to account for ourselves. In short: Don’t explain, don’t complain.

The monthly reader board sessions improved. We held them for more than a year. We met readers from various communities and occupations, learned a lot and developed contacts for news.

The experiment ended with a group from the Fur Takers of America who wanted to take issue with a wire story we had published about leg-hold traps. Eight gentlemen, all dressed like Will Geer’s character in the movie Jeremiah Johnson – hard to tell where the animal ended and the human began – shared milk and cookies and tales of trapping.

Months later, beavers dammed a stream that backed up and overflowed into the Delaware & Hudson rail yards, threatening homes in the Sixth Ward. The city called in the Fur Takers of America. They saved the day, but perhaps not the beavers.

For communications and communities, there are few substitutes for meeting people face-to-face. Whatever our difficulties and differences, they rarely get resolved by barbed tweets, blogged rants or a regular newspaper column.

Well-ordered government meetings or court procedures reinforce authority and sustain a focus on taking care of business. Community forums can be good if they invite expression and questions.

How we listen may define the difference between talking with each other and talking at each other. Even in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred did most of the talking. A couple of community leaders in the Milton area appear to be out to change that.

Pastor Jilline Bond of Revival Tabernacle in Watsontown and Milton School Superintendent Cathy Groller share this idea: If we listen to each other face-to-face, put our heads together, and decide how we will tackle problems in unison, we can make life a little better in our communities.

They would like their Milton-area neighbors to join them in a community forum from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday, May 5 at the First Baptist Church, 316 Golf Course Road, Milton. It is hard to imagine a better partnership for positive community progress than schools and churches.

In the past several years, we have encountered Pastor Jill and Super Cathy at various functions affiliated with the newspaper, the school, the chambers of commerce or in the context of any number of local news stories.  They are proactive, glass-half-full, can-do, relentlessly positive leaders who appreciate how motivated and motivating their communities can be, now and for the future.

“It is one thing to talk about issues,” Pastor Jill Bond said.”It is quite another to get together and talk with people and find a way to make a positive change.”

If you have completed your celebration of El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla (the day of the battle of Puebla, Cinco de Mayo), this 90 minutes may be time equally well spent – especially if you want to lend your voice and your hands to community improvement.