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Willmar residents learn to listen to better communicate with other cultures

TRIBUNE / Rand Middleton Arfon Mohamud, left, and Gary Geiger share personal stories Wednesday of “being different,” an exchange designed to break down cultural barriers to understanding.1 / 3
TRIBUNE / Rand Middleton Moderator the Rev. Ron Duty talked Wednesday about the importance of listening as he helped lead the Cross-Cultural Conversation gathering in Willmar. A broad range of people participated in exercises to learn how to better communicate with others in the community.2 / 3
TRIBUNE / Rand Middleton The Rev. Joseph Bocko, who helped lead last week’s Cross-Cultural Conversation in Willmar, takes pictures of the estimated crowd of 175 adults, teenagers and children at the Willmar Middle School cafeteria. 3 / 3

WILLMAR — Listening may be the most important skill in having a conversation with a person of another culture, according to retired pastor the Rev. Ron Duty.

Last week, Duty and the Rev. Joseph Bocko led a group of more than 175 people through exercises designed to give them ideas for talking with someone from another culture. The Cross-Cultural Conversation was held at the Willmar Middle School.

The gathering was sponsored by Willmar Lakes Area Vision 2040, Willmar Lakes Chamber of Commerce and Willmar Community Education and Recreation. Vision 2040 has a committee developing ideas for welcoming newcomers to the community.

The crowd included a broad range of people of different age groups and ethnicities and filled more than half of the school cafeteria.

Duty and Bocko are affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Duty began by asking, “Why are you interested in talking to someone who is different from you?”

Several people called out answers: To learn about other cultures; to help people from another culture; to get to know my neighbor.

Bocko congratulated the people who had come to the meeting, because they recognized their need to adapt to the community’s changing demographics and “make new friends.”

The reasons given were good ones, Duty said, and he suggested another, “to become a better community through cross-cultural interaction.”

To be a good listener, a person needs to “lower your self-consciousness a bit,” and set aside previous views, Duty said.

Good listening is especially important in cross-cultural conversations, he said, because people from different cultures will have varied reactions to the same event.

“Everyone thinks conversation is all about talk, but it’s at least half about listening,” Duty said.

The participants were asked to speak with someone sitting near them about a time they were in a situation where they were different from the other people in a group. The second person in the conversation was to paraphrase the experience, then share an experience that the first person would paraphrase.

After the room buzzed with talk for a few minutes, Duty observed, “This is not a shy group.”

Bocko said listening to a person who has a different story can open up understanding of another culture and what the other person values.

Next, they asked participants to choose one of two scenarios to discuss as a table. One was about African newcomers having trouble finding housing in a small city and the other was about a situation in a church congregation.

Some groups had members play different roles and then discussed the situation; others discussed the scenario as a group.

The conversations can reveal people’s deeply held values and help groups find ways to work together, Duty said.

One woman suggested that fear of the unknown could be a barrier to productive communication.

Duty agreed. “It could be the elephant in the room,” he said. “The important thing is to not let (fears) get the better of you, and don’t give up on the conversation.”

Another woman said it can be difficult to have meaningful conversations when there’s a language barrier.

Bocko said the comments relate to the word “risk.”

“If you are afraid of risking, you can’t grow,” he said. “If fears are too great, a person will not be in a frame of mind to take a risk.”

Representatives of the Willmar Area Food Shelf and Jefferson Learning Center said those who wanted to meet people of other cultures were welcome to volunteer in their organizations. Others mentioned were Safe Avenues and the Salvation Army.

Duty said it is possible to find many places to interact with people of other cultures in “non-threatening” ways.

“Anything you can do to increase hospitality or meeting space is an opportunity to reduce apprehension,” he said.


Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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