“CARMEN!”

Posted March 30, 2011

"CARMEN!" by Griffin Caprio

Growing up, that's a sound I heard frequently.  My father, Carmen, had a knack for uniting the people at places he frequented.  He could work a room, as they say, without ever leaving his seat.   He was the unofficial patriarch of so many places over the years I lost count.   If he was there, you knew you could confide in him, get his advice or just shoot the breeze.   After a while, this dynamic community would spring up.  My father knew everyone and they knew him.  He'd use that knowledge to help people and make connections.  If you needed anything, you'd go to Carmen.  He could either help you or point you to someone who could. 

The path to this type of community isn't easy.  The key is to make connections between the people in the community.  My father knew this better than anyone.  To make the connections he did, he spoke less than you would think.  Instead, he listened.  A lot.  He'd listen to people he knew, people he didn't know and people he'd never see again.  He knew that listening to other people, their stories and experiences was the single greatest way that he could really connect with them.  That's the real path to stronger connections: listen to build genuine bonds with other people.   When someone is genuinely listened to, they will get inspired to listen to someone else.

If you spend most of your time talking at people, spouting off what matters to you and what's important to you, the other person will bore easily and shut down.  At the end of the conversation, you and they will have gained nothing.  If, however, you actively engage with the other person, you'll discover knowledge, new information and other viewpoints that you likely wouldn't have anywhere else. Every community flourishes through knowledge sharing and the creation of a densely connected web of solid connections.  My father internalized that little nugget and his personality was built on it.  He knew that if you respect and listen to people, they'll not only respect and listen to you, but they'll open your eyes to a myriad of new things.

That's why to build a better community in Chicago we need to do more listening and less talking.  So what does this have to do with you, the reader?  That's easy: we need you to help build this community.  To do that, try and become a better listener.  It's not easy.  To get better at anything, you need to practice and listening is no different.   It just doesn't happen you on its own, you need to nurture it.  One way to do that is something I've been doing for close to 10 years:

Talk to anyone, about anything, for at least an hour. 

You read that right: Anyone. Anything. An Hour.

To make better use of your time, I encourage you to adhere to two rules.  First, the person should be knowledgeable and passionate about what they're talking about.  Nothing is more boring than listening to someone talk about a subject they clearly hate.  Their feelings permeate everything they say and it makes them incredibly boring to listen to.  Second, they should be open minded and not shy away from answering questions.  I don't know about you, but I'm a sponge.  I love asking questions in order to broaden my own knowledge.  If someone hates answering questions, that's just going to turn our conversation into a presentation: informative, but not engaging.

I like these talks because I've learned that everyone is an expert in something.  It could be cooking, knitting, web site design or cars.  There's always something I can learn and apply to my own life, even if it's only a little nugget of information.  Different subjects are often connected in ways not immediately apparent.  You just need a little exposure to realize it.   The more people you talk & listen to, the greater your chances of looking at things in your own life in a different light.  

Chicago is an amazing city and it's doing amazing things every day.  We're the City That Works, after all.  However, there's a downside to this work ethic: isolation.  For the most part, we are content to be working, living and relaxing.  We forget that there's an entire population of people with knowledge and experiences that are different from our own.  Introducing a few of those different experiences will open your eyes to all of the amazing people around you.  Eventually, we'll start to get that vibrant community my father would be proud of.  However, it's up to you and it all starts with that first hour.