Listening Across Differences

A New Orientation Workshop Pushes Law Students to Practice ‘Hearing One Another’

Hearing One Another

Sitting across from a classmate on the second day of Law School orientation, Kenny Chiaghana, ’22, noticed something new.

He and the other student—a stranger before that day—had been paired for the final exercise of Hearing One Another, a University of Chicago program in the UChicago Inclusion Workshop series that made its Law School debut this year. What Chiaghana noticed was that his partner went out of his way to play down certain accomplishments, sometimes adding entire sentences and caveats.

People often told Chiaghana that he did the same thing—but until that point, he hadn’t fully understood what they meant.  

“Coming to the realization that I can learn something about myself by listening to others was very, very surprising,” Chiaghana said. “That you can be self-reflective even when you’re listening was a big takeaway for me.”

Moments like this are part of the idea behind Hearing One Another, an interactive workshop that combines behavioral science and improvisational exercises to help individuals communicate across differences and improve their listening skills. At the beginning of the workshop, knowing only its name, Chiaghana had been skeptical. But it wasn’t long before the walls came down and the negativity began to fall away. By the time the two-hour workshop ended, Chiaghana was surprised by how much he had learned about his classmates, and how much closer he felt to them as a result.

“I still remember almost everything [about the exchange with my partner],” Chiaghana said. “Because I really, really listened to this stranger, I got this deeper human bonding with a lot less time. It’s very inspiring.”

Rooted in Research and Improv

Hearing One Another grew from the notion that the lessons of improv can apply to daily life as well as comedic performance—and that when shaped by behavioral science research, improv and theater exercises can help individuals practice and improve a wide range of interpersonal skills. The workshop is one of several developed by the Second Science Project, which began in 2017 through a partnership between the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and The Second City, a Chicago-based improvisational theater company that includes classes, performances, and training programs. As of September 2019, one out of every six members of the University community has participated in Hearing One Another, the majority of whom have been students in the College.

“I think that law students, just like anyone else, need to be reminded that listening is a skill,” said Dean of Students Charles Todd, who joined the Law School in late 2018 from the College, where he had served as deputy dean of students. “As professional students who are getting their first professional network, it's incredibly important that they form deep connections with their peers. And I think the skills that they reflect on and think about in this program can help them develop a network that will stay with them for many years to come.”

Hearing One Another

Law School students move through the three-part workshop with their “Bigelow” section, the group that each first-year student is placed in for their legal writing classes. The workshops were facilitated by members of the Law School community, including Todd, along with seasoned facilitators from across the University. A member of the faculty also joined each group.

Professor William Hubbard, chair of the Law School’s diversity committee and a participant in this year’s workshop, appreciated that Hearing One Another’s exercises are based in evidence from psychology and behavioral science research. The workshop, he said, achieved two crucial orientation objectives.

“One is just to build a rapport among the students—to break the ice and get comfortable, and to make friends,” said Hubbard, who graduated from the Law School in 2000 and was one of six faculty participants. “The other thing, which is trickier because there are so many ways to do it, and you can't do them all in a week, is to build those skills in emotional intelligence that are so important to lawyering. It isn’t always the emphasis of what we do in the classroom, but it is so important to being a lawyer.”

The program also highlights two key Law School values: freedom of expression and diversity and inclusion, Todd added.

“I want students to recognize that they are part of an incredibly diverse class of individuals who all bring something to the table,” he said. “Whether those individuals look like them, believe like them, think like them, live like them, or not. Getting to spend three years with that incredible diversity is a great privilege. I hope that they all recognize how special that is, and that they take getting to know this new community very seriously.”

Seeing Beneath the Surface

During one exercise, students took turns offerings personal statements in an effort to share about themselves and understand each other more deeply. Caitlan Sussman, ’22, remembers admiring the bravery of her fellow classmates as the statements they shared grew more personal.

“At the beginning it was more lighthearted,” Sussman said. “Then, as the questions got deeper, we were asked to open up a little more, and that was more difficult. Some people stepped forward if they had experienced mental illness, some people stepped forward if they had been raised by single parents. It was nice to see how supportive everyone was. No one was judgmental.”

Hearing One Another

This exercise was informed by a study that found that the more people “individuate”—or see each other as complex individuals rather than forming opinions based on stereotypes—the better they were at getting to know each other and collaborating as a team.

“Part of effective communication is sharing things about yourself,” said Hubbard, who met students at the workshop who would ultimately end up in his Civil Procedure class. “It’s good to try to be a little more open when you’re getting to know people, and to get to know them on more than a superficial level. That was a really useful takeaway.”

The exercise led Chiaghana to see his classmates more fully as they shared pieces of themselves. For instance, a quiet demeanor didn’t mean a person was unapproachable or unfriendly, he realized.

“[People would] share things about themselves, and I would think, ‘Oh, that's why this person's like this, they're not trying to be rude,” Chiaghana said. “They're not trying to exclude me for any reason. This is just who this person is.’”

Different Ways of Listening

Students also experimented with a variety of listening styles. One exercise, which was rooted in research showing that those who offer comments and ask questions tend to retain more information, highlighted the benefits of active listening. But it also exposed drawbacks: some workshop participants noted that providing consistent feedback during a conversation could distract both the speaker and the listener.

Faculty participant Sarah Konsky, a clinical professor, said the exercise made her think more about how different listening styles might fit different situations.

“I think many of us in our session walked away with the idea that, for different kinds of conversations, it’s good to have different listening approaches,” said Konsky, who is the director of the Jenner & Block Supreme Court and Appellate Clinic. “Sometimes you do want to be very passive and just let the other person share what they need to share. Other times it’s better to be engaged in the conversation, affirming what they're saying or disagreeing.”

Hearing One Another

The exercise encouraged Sussman to pay more attention to how, and how often, she would listen to her classmates.

“In a place like law school, we might be so busy listening to a professor that when classes end, we switch off a little bit,” Sussman said. “I think it's really important in a class full of all these amazing talented people to make time for a small conversation with them and listen to what they have to say. Simply listening to someone can make them feel so supported.”

Listening and keeping an open mind can also allow one to fully appreciate a new experience, Chiaghana added, thinking back to his initial reservations about Hearing One Another.

“You have a lot to gain just by letting your walls down and participating as genuinely as you can,” he said. “In my experience, once someone else is as genuine as you are, it has a ripple effect on everybody.”