“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” 

That observation from the late author and educator Steven Covey might just have been uttered by Peter Wood — that is, before his One Small Step conversation. But talking to his partner recently served to renew his faith in being able to communicate authentically — and on a human level — with someone of a different upbringing and outlook.

“One of the challenges of this conversation was to go in with an open mind and heart,” he recalls. “When you’re in a situation like that, you’re already starting to formulate your answer, so you’re not really listening.”

A native of Great Britain, having grown up in various places in England and Scotland, Peter emigrated to the U.S. in the late ‘90s to take a position in advertising where he put his artistic and design skills to work on some big accounts. 

His childhood exposed him to a variety of people and a diversity of opinions. His Austrian mother hoped he would become a priest; Peter tried, but it didn’t take. But along the way, he learned how to engage with others.

“When I was in the dining room at boarding school, you were assigned to eat with the same eight people the entire year and you learned how to get along with other people. And when you’re in an all-boys Catholic school in Scotland, you learn to navigate these good, bad, and ugly interactions,” he says.

Today, when it comes to matters of disagreement, even among long-time friends, Peter laments what he calls “fading away.” These days, young people may call it “ghosting,” but it’s basically the ending of a relationship based on differences of opinion.

“You used to be able to disagree with someone, but respect them for what they did, for who they are,” he says. “That’s missing today, and it’s not just ‘I don’t like you, sir.’ It’s like you’re disrespecting their value in society, and that bothers me, and I’ve noticed that in more and more people. The gulf is widening, and I’ve lost friends because of it.”

That “chasm,” as he calls it, created some anxiety in the days leading up to his OSS conversation. How would he get along with this complete stranger, someone he knew beforehand might not share his perspectives, at least politically? 

“I thought, ‘Is this really going to be like an interview, where it’s a bit stiff, a bit awkward?’” he remembers. “But that feeling lasted about 20 seconds, and then we had a very relaxed, comfortable conversation.” Peter’s conversation partner turned out to be younger, and of a different gender and race.

Peter was struck by her candor and the emotions attached to her words, particularly when she shared her concern for the safety of her young children, growing up Black amid a society where life is challenging for people of color.

“She was incredibly smart in a way that I’ve not experienced because she comes from a different sensibility, and I was surprised at her openness, humbleness, honesty, and sense of self-worth. She forced me to think differently, and I was very taken aback by that.”

Guess you could say that Peter Wood was listening.