being with

To fully engage in conversation, we have to be in a certain frame of mind. We have to be with that person, rather than seeking to act upon them.

If we enter into conversation with the desire to act upon the other participants then we are seeing them as objects - things rather than people. It means that we are not able to be fully open to what they are saying. We are not open to interaction. This is something that can happen in our work. For example, we may see someone putting down another person - and seek to intervene. The temptation is to condemn, to tell the person off, or to make it clear that this is not an acceptable way to behave. This may, indeed, be the best way forward in the situation. However, it may not. We have to take great care of the spirit in which we act - and the way this may be experienced by other people. We need to be ready to listen and ask questions. Nothing is served by arbitrarily closing down conversation. We may feel better or ‘cleaner’ for having avoided an uncomfortable or objectionable topic, but in doing so we may well have abdicated our responsibilities as educators. Where it is necessary to make our position clear we need to address the act or opinion rather than attack the person.

This leads us to something else that we need to take to heart as informal educators. In the work there is a lot of talk of 'getting inside the other person', of empathizing. At first sight the wish to see things as others do, to 'step into their shoes', seems reasonable. But there are great dangers in this - we do not share their history or their genes.

To imagine we can see the world through other’s eyes can be to kid ourselves. It can lead to us acting on what we imagine rather than on what we hear. In this sense, our task is less to understand others as individuals - than to appreciate what they are saying. In other words, we should not be looking at other people, as looking with them at what they are seeking to communicate. There is a similar thought at work when we say things like 'it is not the person I condemn, but the act' - perhaps where someone has committed a serious act of violence against another. Informal educators, like probation or prison officers, must acquire the capacity to work and converse with people whose behaviour may be totally unacceptable to the overwhelming majority or the educator. This is not easy, but such professional distance is essential. If people feel that it is beyond them, then perhaps it is best to find another area of work.

infedcov.jpg (18462 bytes)Taken from Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published October 11, 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014