Lots of Coffee

Recently, in a conversation about beginning relationships with new communities, one of our new ArtsEngaged trainers, Anne Cushing-Reid, commented that, especially where there is negative history to be overcome, “There’s a lot of coffee in our future.” I flashed back to the thousands of cups of coffee I’ve consumed in the process of getting to know people. “Coffee” is, of course, a place holder for whatever means of social interaction is employed to promote conversation, support mutual learning, and build trust. This is particularly necessary when a community has been marginalized by an arts organization or feels dismissed by the social circles the organization represents to it. Relationship building here means finding ways to crawl up to level ground.

However, all relationship building requires extensive listening to learn. (I sometimes amend that to “listening to serve.”) There is simply no substitute for the time it takes for you to get to know a community and for them to get to know you. Whether it’s over coffee, tea, adult beverages, doughnuts, lunch, bridge, mahjongg, pool, billiards, or arm wrestling, it takes effort and presence.

And the nature of those conversations demands humility on our part and a willingness to hear people out. Unrelated to my community engagement work, I have been reading of late about medical professionals preparing themselves to help people deal with end-of-life issues. I have been struck by how frequently the mandate to listen comes up–listening to patients far more than telling. One book, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande contains the following passage: “You sit down. You make time. . . . You’re trying to learn what’s most important to them . . . . The process requires as much listening as talking. If you are talking more than half of the time . . . you’re talking too much.” I like the “metric” about talking less than half the time. Later he gives an outline for these intense discussions: Ask-Tell-Ask.

While there is no direct relationship between community engagement as discussed here and the training of gerontologists and hospice workers, the principle of needing to spend time listening and learning is central to both.



Photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Photomath?

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Recognizing the dignity of the people on the other side of the conversation is essential, and it specifically requires listening to them.

    Coincidentally, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer earlier this year, and a few months ago I had an experience that reflects some of what you are talking about. I posted this on my facebook page for friends to consider:

    I learned something important yesterday, sitting in the chemo treatment room with the other patients: I don’t really know anything. Not yet, at least. My cheery optimism is probably fueled exactly by how little I know. The gentleman sitting next to me had gone through the treatments I am now on, but eventually they stopped working. His case is terminal, he told me, and they are just trying to extend things…..

    What do you SAY to that? I don’t fully understand what my own prognosis is, but I imagine my friends have all been faced with the awful experience of what to say in the face of my ugly situation.

    I’m not sure there are words for any of it. This poor man! But after mumbling how sorry I was to hear that I started to see how what we had already been talking about was how he still had a sense of purpose, how he still had things he wanted to do. And what I was incapable of communicating in the face of his illness I was perfectly able to talk about concerning his LIFE. We talked more about this and that, and the person beside me was again a full human being, not just a terminal cancer patient. What we can’t say so well to the dying we can say perfectly well to the living. The important thing is to see the living person, at ALL times.

    One thing he had discussed was how he made the mistake of lying down as the best response to constantly feeling exhausted, but that this had left his legs weak, and now he is also faced with a diminished capacity to get around. I am familiar with that exhaustion and also with sinking ever deeper into my own couch. I reached over and squeezed his arm and told him that I promised I would do better than I have been. I promised him that I would exercise diligently and that his mistake would have some positive return in the world by helping ME do better. I felt like crying. He is such a sweet man…..

    Because the truth is that what happens to us is never only about us. Never. The tragedy and the joys that befall us are only a seed for other things to grow. Not just in ourselves but in others. Always.