The Dignity Tour: Penn State laureate's third reflection reviews fall semester

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Susan Russell, the 2014-15 Penn State Laureate and associate professor of theater, is taking her "Dignity Tour" to Penn State campuses, high schools and other locations across Pennsylvania, discussing "various languages of creativity, and how these languages can bridge communication gaps between diverse cultures and disciplines."

She also is maintaining a website, dignity.psu.edu, where her students post videos, images, music and texts intended to inspire people to thrive for their highest personal and collective goals as global citizens. Russell is reflecting on her laureate experiences through a series of essays. Her third essay appears below. Previous essays and posts about her travels are archived at http://laureate.psu.edu/Susan_Russell.

Third Reflection: Reflecting back

I have visited 13 Commonwealth Campuses so far, and everyone wants to talk. Everyone. Photographers taking pictures of people talking want to talk. People dispensing coffee, gas and pizza want to talk. Faculty, staff, administrators and chancellors want to talk, and most of all, Penn State students want to talk. Our students want to talk about race, about identity, violence against women and violence against people of color. Our students want to talk about stress and failure and who is in charge of what and where they go to file a complaint. They want to talk about possibilities and potential and progress, and they want to talk about shutting things down so they can open things up. They sound so mature. They sound so familiar. They sound just like you and me.

Our issues might be different and our desired direction for the country might be up for a good debate, but everyone wants some changes. In the last three months I have met hundreds of people from 15 to 88 years old, and I have not met one person who is not asking how to get “there” from here. Languages, methods and strategies for communication might be different, but everybody wants their “there” to get here, and of all the destinations people want to come home to, being heard is at the top of the list. If everybody wants to be heard, it means everybody will have to listen as well.

My Dignity Tour has taught me some things about listening: first, I have to stop talking, and second, if I start listening to someone, chances are I will hear the questions they want to be asked. What if asking questions became a skill set that all of us practiced? Lawyers and therapists understand the power of questions, as do parents and preachers. Once you tune into the most common set of questions, you see how easy it is for a question to actually derail a conversation. Questions like “Who do you think you are?” “What do you think you are doing?” and “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” are conversation-smashing questions of childhood. If you start listening for adult-land questions, you can hear those that are asked in order to establish authority or show how right or smart the asker is.

Conversation smashers are about the asker’s world, but if you ask questions that open up someone else’s storyline, you can really hear what the person in front of you is saying. Ask yourself this: What do I want someone to ask me? What question, if I’m given the room to answer it, would make me feel heard? Everyone has that question. Can you imagine a world where everyone had the opportunity to answer it?

If we started asking each other those kinds of questions, we might create a culture of listeners. If this reflection sounds a little like my opening essay, thank you for reading it, and you are right. This tour has always been about finding ways to communicate better, and I don’t think anyone, except those who profit from silence, can deny we need to talk about some very difficult issues. I used to think we didn’t talk enough. Now I think we don’t know what questions to ask in order to get the conversations going. Maybe we can just stop talking for a while and listen to what’s being said, and in order to hear the questions, we will have to agree that everyone gets to be heard. 

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Last Updated December 09, 2014