Listening Is the Start of Everything

A student shares how moving away from the competitive speech of debate and towards Generation Global’s philosophy of dialogue has helped him in the classroom and in life.

By Scott Lee Chua

When I was still in middle school, I was involved in debate. Debate was all about winning, about saying something so others are unable to respond. Then in my freshman year, I found Generation Global, an online community that supports dialogue among students all over the world. As I went through the training modules and learned more about the power of dialogue, I decided that this was not something I wanted to do as an extracurricular activity—this was a guiding principle that I wanted to incorporate into my whole educational journey.

I stuck with Generation Global for all four years of high school at Xavier School in the Philippines. In my senior year, I became president of the club that participated in Generation Global. I went from the competitive speech of debate to an approach based more on learning. What I discovered was that listening is the start of everything. When you truly listen to someone else, you open yourself up to different ideas and learn from them. It’s about respect: listening doesn’t compel you to agree on a political stance or like what the person is saying, it only asks that you be empathetic.

By listening to people who have different ideas than I do and integrating their experiences with mine, I learned that even the most contentious topics can be approached from different perspectives. You both still “win” when you share and respect each other.

In connecting with other students the world over, I learned to navigate differences not just in the classroom but in my personal life. The listening and speaking skills I learned helped me get over some tough times with friends. I was so sold on dialogue that I made it a point to bring the experience to other people who had never participated in Generation Global.

As one step in that direction, my friends and I organized “Sounds of September: Poetry for Peace,” an event where we invited around 200 students from different schools and a wide variety of economic brackets to share their poetry—and to listen to each other.

Adjusting to Differences

After I graduated, I moved to Singapore to continue my studies at Yale-NUS. There’s so much diversity here: 40 nationalities living in the same square mile. So many of my assumptions have been uprooted—even things as basic as what food is considered tasty and what food is not. I have a Filipino palate that craves salt, but I quickly learned that not everyone shares my tastes. The definition of “yummy” is different for everyone!

I live with four other roommates, and we constantly have to negotiate things like how loud someone’s music should be, who sweeps the floor, what time to wake each other up. The trick is that you can never open a dialogue aggressively. You have to give other people the benefit of the doubt and start from the assumption that everyone has good intentions. With that mindset, you can listen, and you can learn. When someone else says something that doesn’t sit well, the worst thing you can do is think that they’re out to get you and immediately take offense.

Creating Opportunities for Dialogue

I don’t just practice my dialogue skills with my roommates. I have also become a moderator for Generation Global. I have gone from participating in dialogue to creating opportunities for other to take part in it. My difficult but worthwhile goal is to create an environment where open dialogue is accepted, where people can learn to speak with sensitivity and listen with sincerity.

So far in my work as a moderator, I’ve seen that some people tend to clam up when they know someone like myself is watching. Others are quite adept at relating their social experiences or religious beliefs, but still shy away from reflecting on why they act and think that way. Because I don’t want to “police” them but rather push them to learn more, I ask them to share what aspects of their culture or identity makes them unique, and go from there. The aim is to foster genuine personal conversations, not debates.

I believe this is important work because, in a world where so many students live much of their life online, the opportunities for dialogue are rare. On social networks like Facebook and Twitter, students can “dialogue” with others, but thanks to overly intelligent algorithms, the Internet often shows you what you want to see. Digital life can be an echo chamber unless you try to break out of it. Real dialogue gives everyone who embraces it an opportunity to break out of the shell and truly connect with another human being. All you have to do is listen.

Scott Lee Chua is a freshman at Yale-NUS College, Singapore, and an alumnus of Xavier School Philippines. He is a Generation Global moderator, magazine columnist, and escape room designer, but still does not know how to open those plastic bags for fruits and vegetables at the supermarket. Email him at [email protected].

On Wednesday, November 16, at 3 p.m. ET, you can hear more about Scott’s experiences with Generation Global on the webinar Effective Student Dialogue: Critical Thinking and Active Listening, presented by Dr. Ian Jamison, the Head of Education at Generation Global.

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