We had a dream that many people have since told us they also have, and a year ago, we were fortunate enough to be able to embark on it. That’s when my husband and I decided to cash in our chips. We sold our house, gave away our stuff and set out on a long-term adventure travelling through North America. Our goal was to be open to new experiences and soak them all in.

We didn’t have a lot of expectations—just get moving, see what’s out there and enjoy the ride.

Like wide-eyed children

From the dense forests of the Oregon coast to the sandy beaches of South Carolina in the States, and the rocky coastline of Vancouver Island to the narrow streets of Montreal in Canada, there is so much that has dazzled us.

The diversity of natural landscapes and environments is breathtaking. Immersing ourselves in the density of a forest with its dizzying depth can leave us feeling like the outside world no longer exists. Experiencing the vast expanse of a desert extending in every direction, as far as the eye can see, can make us feel as small as two grains of sand.   

The differences in people’s habitats are also staggering. The immense antebellum mansions of the South flow from the past to their present-day manifestations of grandeur. The detail and craftsmanship put into these homes is almost never seen today.

At the other end of the spectrum are homeless camps in large cities that make us ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about our responsibility towards our fellow human beings.

We have had a lot of experiences. We have soaked them all in.  

Conscious listening

Somewhere along the way, we started feeling like it couldn’t just be about us. We were getting a lot for ourselves—seeing new places, gaining new insights—what were we doing for others? We felt like all that filling up we were getting needed to be poured out to others.

We were getting a lot for ourselves—seeing new places, gaining new insights—what were we doing for others?

I was used to my contributions to others being done through formal means: a job, volunteer efforts, charitable organizations. But by that time, the way we were living was much more organic. The experiences we were having were happening naturally, as we travelled along. It felt like the giving would need to be done the same way.

We started thinking about the people we were meeting. Conversations would often start with them asking us, “Where are you from?” These people would often continue talking about their own travels and opinions of places, and sometimes even give us a little window into their personal lives.

We noticed that most people we met were eager to tell us about themselves and their experiences. And then we realized that we had a simple gift we could offer, a way of giving a little something back wherever we went.

It’s easy to gloss over what others say in conversation and jump in with our own stories, or change the topic to what we’re interested in. When someone shares something a little emotional, it can be a knee-jerk reaction to steer clear. And, in effect, we end up talking at each other instead of having a conversation.

So we decided we would consciously listen to others in a way that showed we were trying to understand them from their perspective. We wanted to pay attention to what was important to them and be genuinely interested in finding out more. We wanted people to leave conversations with us feeling like what they said mattered—because it did.

The experiment

Meeting and talking with people as we go is one of the most rewarding aspects of travelling for us. Every person has just a little bit of a different take on the world and how they live in it. Showing our appreciation for each person who shares a piece of themselves with us, by consciously giving them the undivided attention they deserve, has become a fundamental part of how we travel.

Around a campfire one night, we listened as our temporary neighbour told us about the plan she’s had for years to sail the Caribbean. She shared with us how she’s the same age now as her father was when he died. Time has slipped away on her and she doesn’t want to miss her chance.

In a small town, we met a recent graduate who had moved across the country to see what life was like on the other side. He had no idea he would miss home so much. He was now wondering if he’d made the right choice in moving and what his next step should be.

These were important moments in these people’s lives and we were honoured that they’d shared them with us.

An unexpected setting

But perhaps the most unique opportunity we had to listen and try to understand someone from their perspective came in the unlikely setting of a gun shop. Being from Canada, we’re not used to the frequent ads for guns, gun shows and gun shops that are ubiquitous in some areas of the States. We decided to go into one of these shops to see what it was all about.

The whole time we were there, we were the only customers, so we had the attention of the store owner all to ourselves. He was proud of his business and highlighted the fact that he even made his own bullets. Shoulders back, arms crossed and voice booming, he gave us an impromptu education on guns, his theories on why everyone should own them and his political convictions that left absolutely no room for negotiation.

And we listened. I mean, really listened. We didn’t offer our own opinions or challenge any of his views. We had never talked in person to someone who felt as strongly as he did, and we just wanted to hear what he had to say.

A surprising shift

After about half an hour, an interesting thing happened. The conversation had taken a natural turn and we were talking about families—his and ours. His expression softened, his arms uncrossed and he let a genuine smile light up his face. The blustery, my-way-or-the-highway front had given way to something much more approachable.

At somewhere around the hour mark, the conversation circled back to guns and politics, but the man’s open, smiley demeanour persisted. So my husband decided to take a risk.

He told the store owner how, while driving across the States, we had listened to both sides of the political divide speak with the same passion and intensity about their opposing views. It seemed, my husband told him, that if each side would just stop for a moment and listen to how much the other side wanted the same thing—even though they disagreed on how to get it—they might actually be able to understand each other’s perspectives and come together.

The same man who had stood before us not too long before, with a staunch, unbending stance, was now listening. I mean, really listening, without rebutting or objecting. He stared intently at my husband and slowly nodded his head. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe you’re right.”

To watch this transformation before our very eyes was a satisfying confirmation that the way we’re approaching our interactions with others has a lot more to keep teaching us. It also gave us hope that listening with the intent to understand another person’s perspective just might be contagious.

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