The art of listening: a conversation with a "flat-earther"
I recently had the opportunity to meet a successful and well respected member of my community, who happens to believe the Earth is flat.
It was something he said, a passing comment, that signalled that this is something he believes, and my focus was instantly redirected and focused on that one thing:
The person in front of me has a totally different worldview from mine, and I don't like it!
I must admit, I had a rather violent internal reaction... I was angry - internally, and with almost no outward indication as to how agitated I was feeling. The person standing in front of me has a set of beliefs that are so far removed from mine, that I felt physical discomfort at the idea that his worldview could even exist... let alone that this fully grown adult is a successful and respected member of the community I am a part of...
As the conversation progressed, he gave me his version of what the world and beyond looks like, I realised there was more to learn from trying to imagine the world he lives in, rather than imposing my belief system on him without making sure he understood that he had been heard.
As I asked my open ended questions, and I gave him the time and space to answer them, I found that his body language changed, from being defensive to being open. He uncrossed his arms, his rate of speech slowed to a calm and receptive state in which a real conversation could take place.
I had never met a "flat-earther" before... I imagined that they had been invented by a marketing company that specialises in viral videos of individuals verbally abusing each other on YouTube and Facebook for a clickbait campaign... then again, I'm the moron for watching this kind of "content"... so had it been an actual campaign and their measure of success was the number of views, the numbers on Facebook and YouTube would speak for themselves...
So as you can imagine, despite my initial anger, frustration and downright incomprehension of his point of view, our conversation didn't turn into a fist fight. It was a respectful exchange, in which I asked questions to hear and understand what the person had to say, instead of trying to explain to him why he's wrong...
From my understanding, he sees the world and the surrounding space as a finite and self contained entity that is all on the same plane. In his mind, the United Nations flag is an exact map of the world:
In this individual's mind, the centre of the disk on-which we live is the Arctic and the outer limits of the disk is the Antarctic... needless to say that it took some imagination seeing the world in the way that this person sees it.
We spoke about the sunrise and the sunset, as well as how the moon appears on some nights, in different shapes and on some nights doesn't show up at all... Where does it go?!
In his world view, both of these celestial bodies get very, very far away... we then spoke about the other stars in the sky and the conversation was about 30 minutes long, throughout which I'll admit to having been tempted to just write this person off as a complete idiot, just because he doesn't see and understand the world I see, which "should" automatically make him a moron and unworthy of my respect... right?!
Without wanting to sound like Mr. Magnanimous, I didn't punch the person in the mouth, belittle him in front of a crowd of people, or ridicule him in front of his friends...
Instead, I listened to understand, not to answer.
What I learned from this conversation is that I could practice my listening skills in circumstances when even my belief system was confronted with someone else's, which happens to be completely different from my own.
I felt calmer at the end of the conversation, because I realised that it wasn't my job to convince him that he was wrong - however it was my job to make sure that he felt heard and that a real conversation was possible between us.
I told him that I respect his right to believe that the Earth is flat, just like I respect anyone else's right to believe that the world was made by a God, or that there are several Gods... or any other number of scenarios that we mentally and emotionally commit to.
Putting this into context of speaking with an audience
When you're pitching, your audience is composed of people who you probably have lots in common with, and others who are a lot further away from your belief system. However, being open to the fact that the person asking you a question might not share your point of view or even your values will allow you to take on another way of seeing the world, in which you might learn something.
We would love to hear your most memorable story of a time when you opened up to someone else's point of view.
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