In Today’s Polarizing Culture, Is it Possible to Really Listen & Converse with Others?
My stomach is in knots. My boss told me at the 9am staff meeting that he wanted to meet with me at 2pm. I know it’s not going to be good.
My friend crossed a line with me last night after we fell asleep high on his bed. I know we have to talk about it, but I don’t want to jeopardize the relationship, say something stupid, or hurt his feelings. It wasn’t that big of a deal, right?
I haven’t spoken with my mother in 2 years, and she’s going to be at my cousin’s wedding this weekend. She’s going to try to talk to me or stir up some drama, I just know it. I’ll barely be able to enjoy the wedding because of her presence there.
The kids are finally down, and my spouse gives me “the look,” motioning me to the kitchen table instead of our normal evening space in front of the TV. Setting the wine bottle down hard and pouring large portions for each of us, she announces, “we need to talk.”
The principal needs to talk to both of us. I already know what it’s about. My kid has the same issues at home, and I’ve just been living in a fantasy world, hoping that maybe he doesn’t act out in the same way with his teachers and fellow students.
You’ve been there. I’ve been there. Maybe even very recently. A difficult conversation looms in the imminent future. It could be about anything — a conversation you know you’ll be trapped into having at a dinner party; a confrontation with a friend about a hurtful decision they made; a family reunion with the presence of a relative or parent you try to avoid.
Within a few seconds of the conversation turning toward the confrontational, even the most emotionally mature of us subconsciously become aware of the shift. The gloves come off, the hackles go up (sometimes literally), and everyone more or less turns off the listening part of their brains and begins to speak sideways to each other. Hopefully(!) the debate is broken up by Aunt Karen’s announcement that dinner is served, or the wedding band cranks into a deafening Kings of Leon cover, or else it could go on for hours. No one ever seems to leave with their minds or opinions changed, and now Uncle Robert’s blood pressure is well into the danger zone for no good reason, a problem that is no doubt caused by his excessive drinking… which, now that it’s come up, is probably another difficult conversation that needs to be had. Oh boy…
Just the sense of dread anticipating the conversation throws us into a fighting mode that, ironically enough, derails us from having the productive conversation that we usually hope we can have. We typically hope to find resolution of some sort in these conversations, don’t we? We hope to convince the toxic relative of our point of view, or help the friend or significant other see how their actions have been hurting our relationship, or establish at least a cease-fire with the toxic parent.
Instead, by our initial defensive posture we tend to self-sabotage before we even open our mouths or walk through the door. Whether or not we consciously realize this, we make the mistake of putting people into a box before we even start talking. This is natural to do — the human mind loves organization — but rarely are our boxes helpful. In political or religiously-oriented conversations, these boxes and labels are often used as badges of honor for those “in the club,” and for those on the opposite side, as a way to unilaterally disparage, prove Guilt by Association (tying someone’s views to an unsavory connection like Communists, Nazis, Westboro Baptist, etc), or sometimes even Straw Man someone’s view different than your own (misrepresenting a particular view in order to discredit it).
The truth is, once you put someone in a box, you stop listening to them.
That goes for whether you agree OR disagree with the box you’ve put someone in. For instance, if I consider myself a political “conservative,” I might be having a conversation with a new acquaintance and quickly realize that I share many conservative opinions in common with them. Almost instantly upon realizing this, I make an subconscious decision that this is a “good guy,” and that I basically agree with them on some foundational issues. Suddenly, I stop listening to the nuances of what they are saying and start putting words in their mouth, filling in the blanks of what they are saying with what I assume they mean.
The opposite is obviously true as well, and we’ve all done it — as soon as you’ve subconsciously identified someone as “on the other team,” the most natural thing to do, even for the best listeners among us, is to listen combatively, thinking only of how we will respond, for how we might shape our counter-argument to the points we disagree with. Sociologists call this partial, critical or false listening — when you spend more time thinking through your own rebuttal than you do paying attention to the point the other person is making.
It’s incredibly hard to simply listen with no agenda whatsoever — to truly listen and seek understanding. The polarizing duality that increasingly defines our public discourse, often defined by the famously ambiguous unclear terms of “liberal” and “conservative,” only exacerbates this natural human problem we already have with listening.
I believe that empathy and inquiry are the two essentials to overcoming this divide and beginning to have constructive conversations with those with whom we disagree — really, to have edifying, constructive conversations with everyone, in any and all kinds of conversations.
Let’s start with the unhelpful terms, liberal and conservative. Can we just throw them out altogether as communication frameworks? Truth be told, nobody really knows what they mean, and they mean different things to just about everyone. They become ways to put someone in a box and uncritically discard their point of view without ever engaging it. That’s a horrible, ignorant, echo chamber of a world to live in.
Putting people in boxes is the first step toward dismissing them, disrespecting them, and ultimately to dehumanizing them.
Now that we’ve taken each other out of these unhelpful boxes and definitions, let’s visit the practice of active listening. Active listening techniques are good for every kind of conversation, whether it’s a political conversation with your secretly-gay-for-Glenn Beck uncle, a class ethics discussion, a Saturday morning chat with Jehovah’s Witnesses at your front door, an argument with a significant other, or a simple conversation with a friend with no combative overtones at all. Instead of immediately determining that you disagree with someone’s point and thinking through ways to rebuff them, try to understand not just what they are saying, but also the point they are making from their perspective —
This is the first step in active listening: empathy.
People have reasons for what they believe, for the conclusions they’ve drawn, for the passion or angst that they carry. Seek to understand those reasons. They may seem silly or insignificant to you, but they are very real to your conversation partner. If you hope to change their mind about something, the vital first step is for your friend to feel that you understand and empathize with where they are coming from.
Putting people in boxes is the first step to dismissing them, disrespecting them, and ultimately to dehumanizing them.
Secondly, follow up your empathy with genuine inquiry. Ask questions. Seek further understanding. Use phrases like, “ok, I think I understand,” or “just to clarify, are you saying that…?”, or “you make a really good point there. Would you then say that you believe _______ to be true as well?”
Sometimes just seeking further clarification rather than jumping straight to conclusions and rebuttals can not only lower the stress level of the conversation and make for a better communication experience, but also clear up misunderstandings that keep us talking sideways at each other when we actually mostly agree with each other’s points.
Has that ever happened to you? What a pointless waste of time and energy!
Now, repeat this process, again: empathy, inquiry. Even if you’ve had to manufacture the energy to initially empathize, once you’ve done your first round of inquiry, your empathy may actually start to genuinely kick in as you understand your friend’s reasoning for their opinions or frustration. This time, you might ask more leading or intentional questions like, “that is a great point you just made. Have you considered…?”, or “I’m really trying to understand here, but I can’t help but feeling like you’re not taking ________ into account when you say that. Am I missing something?”
You could go on indefinitely with this line of active listening. Empathize. Seek further understanding through inquiry. Empathize again. Get clarification. Show that you understand and value their opinions and feelings. Once you’ve done this a couple of times, then you can move to the third stage of the conversation model: offer an alternate point of view.
Not only will your friend be much more likely to hear your point of view after you’ve demonstrated your willingness to understand them, but the cool thing is that now the point of view you end up offering will likely be much more nuanced, informed, and ultimately effective in convincing them (though I contend that should never be the ultimate goal of any healthy conversation).
I’ve created a handy little acronym to help us remember how to do active listening well.
Offer another point of view.
Then again, after you do your E, I, E, I rounds a couple of times, you might decide not to offer any opinion at all, just a final, enlightened, empathetic…
See what I did there? 😎
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