Can we Listen?

Can we Listen? August 24, 2017

One of my facebook friends sent me this Ted video. She knows how much I have been preaching active listening. If you have 20 minutes, please view it. If you do not have 20 minutes right now, then I suggest you bookmark it for later. You will not be disappointed.
Here is a quick synopsis of the video. A black man decided to go undercover on the alt-right. He created a profile of someone who would be sympathetic to the cause of the alt-right. In doing so, he found a lot of nasty stuff. But he also heard a lot of arguments that he thought were fair. Although he clearly did not agree with them on everything, he developed a certain level of compassion from his experience. In the end he encourages us to communicate with each other and learn about each other.

What has happened is that the speaker has engaged in active listening. He found a way to hear what people he did not agree with had to say. I think because he was undercover, he could not simply get into an argument with those who spouted comments that he did not like. He actually had to read their comments and work at understanding them. And in understanding them, he was able to see why other people did not share his perspective. Those voices of people who were on the other side of the political and culture fence became real human beings rather than dehumanized stereotypes.
We are going to have to engage in active listening if we are going to get past this period of our country with minimal conflict. People may think it cannot get any worse. Oh believe me, it can. Violence can become much more commonplace, and we can see a lot more viciousness before this is over. Do we want to bring this social tension to an end or would we like to see this tension decrease? If the latter is of value to us, then active listening is the key.
Let me dispose of one myth connected to active listening. To actively listen does not mean that we have to agree with the person we are hearing. Clearly this black speaker did not come to agree with the alt-right. But it does mean that we come to the place where we understand the perspectives of others so well that we can explain it in our own words. Once we know why people believe as they do, then they seem more human, and we are more willing to work with them to find a compromise.

As I thought about posting this video, it was not lost on me that I was using a video of a progressive listening to non-progressives. While I am being opportunistic about using this video I also realize that, sadly, a video of a conservative engaging in active listening would not have the same impact. Many conservatives tend to look at other conservatives who work at understanding progressives as capitulating to them. Too often they have seen conservative become progressives on certain issues and are characterized as having “evolved.” So showing conservatives an example of a conservative engaging in active listening may unintentionally provide the message that to actively listen is to unconditionally accept the perspective of progressives.
But I also am glad to show the video of a progressive for the sake of progressives. My experience has been that progressives have a harder time being willing to understand the perspectives of others than conservatives. In fact, Jonathan Haidt in his famous book, The Righteous Mind, found that liberals were less able to predict the attitudes of conservatives than conservatives to predict the attitudes of progressives. I do suspect that progressives have a harder time engaging in active listening than conservatives. So having a video exhibiting a progressive engaging in active listening becomes all the more important.

Finally, I fear it has become more difficult for us to understand each other today because of social media. We all know how the system works. Facebook and Twitter feed us contacts and stories that reinforce our preconceived ideas. It gets so easy to get stuck in our ideological silos and not hear contrasting opinions. We have to work to learn those opinions. Maybe we do not have to set up an undercover profile, but we live in a society where access to dissenting opinions does not come easily.
Over the last year or so I have been unfriended on facebook by several Trump supporters because of my antagonism towards him. Before that, I have been unfriended by several progressives because I did not toe the liberal party line. We may be directed to confirm our own biases by social media algorithms but at the very least, we can not eliminate voices from our lives of those who disagree with us. We can actively listen to them, humanize them and quite possibly admit when they are right. Or we can keep ourselves ideologically isolated and watch our society continue its march to some type of political, ideological civil war. I know which option I will choose.

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