Active Listening as a Solution to U.S. Tribalism

Active Listening as a Solution to U.S. Tribalism October 30, 2017

A little while ago I ran across this great article on tribalism in the United States. I do not agree with everything in the article, but much of it jives with my concerns. The dichotomous nature of our current society continues to vex me. As I have written before I fear we are becoming two nations that will struggle to live with each other. Tribalism is as good of a way to describe our inability to work with others with whom we disagree as any other term. When you also consider the fact that the “red” tribe is just about as powerful as the “blue” tribe, then there is no reason not to think that this struggle will go on for a very long time.

Let me build on this article with an observation that should be obvious, but one that does not get talked about very much. We are in the predicament we are in largely because we fail to communicate with each other. As I consider all of my past romantic relationships, I have come to the conclusion that right before they fall apart, there is a time where we had a lack of communication. Even if I thought we were communicating in a healthy manner, sometimes the woman was not telling me, or I was not hearing, what I needed to hear (or vice versa). I suspect a failure to communicate is a major contributor to the ending of most relationships. So if we want to see why social relationships are falling apart between the cosmopolitan, more secular progressives and the rural, religious conservatives, then we would do well to look at the communication patterns between the two groups.

Sometimes communication breaks down because one person decides that he or she cannot tell something unpleasant to the other person. At other times communication breaks down because one person is unwilling to hear the bad news. Either way lack of healthy communication is often the precursor or the catalyst for the estrangement that can occur. In a similar manner, poor communication likely creates or exacerbates the social tension plaguing the United States.
Of course communication can be broken down into transmitting the message, whether that is by talking, writing, emailing, or texting and receiving the message whether by hearing or reading. For two reasons, I want to concentrate on the latter function as I consider how we can improve intergroup communication. First, I would rather concentrate on how to listen rather than how to talk, because to be honest, we almost all like to talk about ourselves. But listening is much more of a chore. Thus to improve communication, it is wiser to concentrate on what we prefer not to do – listening – than what we want to do – talking.

Second, I think we learn how to be better talkers by listening, but we may not learn how to be better listeners by talking. Indeed, our urge to talk can easily get in the way of hearing what others have to say. But, as I will show later, by listening carefully we will be in a better position to communicate our concerns.

I sometimes chuckle to myself when I hear people state that they are talking to each other about an issue when in fact they are talking past each other. You can see examples of this every night on MSNBC, CNN and FOX. The guests on the show do not intend to hear the other person out. They have their own talking points which they intend to regurgitate the moment the right opportunity arises. This is not listening. This is selectively choosing the information you want so that you can keep your previous beliefs intact. Real communication allows us to adjust our ideas to what the other person is saying because we are focused on listening to them instead of preparing for our next argument while they are talking.

A few years ago Michael Emerson and I wrote a book where we talked about active listening as a way to deal with the racial alienation in our society. I stand by our argument and believe it is even more relevant today in our racially polarized society. But I wonder if our vision for using active listening was too narrow. Perhaps we should have considered more than just improving race relations. Maybe some of our advice is relevant towards dealing with our general cultural divide.

To gain the benefits of active listening, we have to first develop active listening skills. The more of us that develop those skills, the better position we will be in to reach a stage where solutions are possible. So let me talk about what active listening is. Active listening is when the listener concentrates on understanding what the speaker is saying and then can reply back to the speaker the content in his or her own words.

You are not just sitting there trying to figure out your next argument. Your focus is on understanding what the person is saying. It does not matter whether you agree or not. In fact, how can you know if you agree or not, if you do not understand where the other person is coming from? So your job is to totally figure out the perspective of the other person and you can evaluate the content of what he or she is saying later.

I have written a little exercise for helping us to develop active listening skills. The exercise is this: Seek out someone with whom you disagree on some pertinent social issues. If they are close enough, go out for coffee or a coke. If they are long distance, see about a phone call. Once you are with them, ask about their ideas on that issue. Then just listen. Once they are done, reiterate what they told you in your own words. Go back and forth until they state that you understand their perspective. Once they feel heard, you can go on to other topics of mutual interest or end the conversation. Do not try to argue with them. You do not have to agree with them, but do not argue. If they want to know your perspective, they can ask. But if they do not ask, let it go. You have heard them and you know where they come from. That is your only goal in this exercise.

If we can become a nation of active listeners instead of a nation of cultural warriors, then how much more enjoyable would life be in the United States. Part of that enjoyment is that we would have the type of skills necessary to solve many of our social and cultural disagreements. In our book, Emerson and I outlined the process for gaining a consensus on difficult racial issues. We outlined five steps in the process. I think such a process could be relevant to figuring out workable compromises in a polarized society.
1) Define the problem – The issue of concern has to be carefully defined, and we have to keep our conversation focused that particular issue. If we start with one subject and then jump to other subjects before we really finish discussing the subject at hand, then we may never get to a useable answer.
2) Identify what we have in common – There are clearly differences between racial groups. But we also have important common values. Finding agreement can help us start a meaningful conversation. That can be an important starting point for our conversation since it will begin with agreement.
3) Recognize our differences –We must be honest about why we have distinctive perspectives. Clearly pointing out why we have developed those perspectives is important so that all parties have a chance to understand our points of contention. We also must learn how to communicate to others as well as use our active listening skills so that we can hear them out.
4) Create solutions that answer the concerns of those with whom we disagree with –If the only thing we want to do is tell others our perspectives and expect them to agree with us, then conversation will often break down. It can become merely a tug of war to see who is more powerful. But if we have really been active listening, then we can articulate the concerns of others and be about to address their concerns as well as our own but at least it is a step in the right direction.
5) Find the compromised solution that best addresses the needs of all parties – Even when both sides of the discussion develop solutions addressing other groups, those solutions are not likely to be the same. We tend to develop solutions dealing with our own concerns more than the concerns of the others. But the solutions are more similar to each other than our opening positions. This will make it easier to combine proposed solutions to come up with the compromise solution that they can live with. No one will get everything, but hopefully all will receive enough so that they can accept and support the solution.

I contend that this type of solution is only possible when we have the skills to engage in active listening so that we can respond with solutions that meet at least some of the needs of those in other “tribes.” My earlier exercise can lead us to being able to find workable solutions that have buy-in from individuals across the political spectrum. We no longer simply try to get our way but find a way that others support as well. It would be the difference between working together for a common goal and fighting half of the society either for a project we like or against a project we do not like.

In our society we have chosen fighting over working together. This is true as it concerns a variety of different issues, but as a race scholar, I especially know that it is true on racial issues. Whites tend to emphasize ignoring race while people of color tend to emphasize focusing on the way racism still plays out in our society. There is a great deal of talking past each other and little in the way of working together. I believe that this is a symptom of a failure to listen to those outside one’s ideological group.

Because of this failure to listen to those on the other side, intergroup communication in our society is horrible. We do not know what those who disagree with us believe and thus we are unable to communicate with them in a useful way. As one who has studied racial issues and has strived to take the ideas of others seriously, let me point out how this manifests itself in the white conservative camp and in the progressive, or even radical, people of color camp. I will use our current racial conflict to illustrate how our failure to listen inhibits our ability to communicate with others, but the principles illustrated also apply to our current general cultural conflict.

Many of my white conservative friends talk about the need for us to become more colorblind. I understand what they are saying. They believe that if we ignore racial issues, then racism will disappear. Many of them are concerned with some of the recent activity of the Nazis and white nationalists. But they also are concerned about groups like BLM which they see as focusing too much on racial issues. That focus is what they believe is the core of the problem which for them is that we pay attention to race in the first place.

But when people of color hear claims about colorblindness, we do not hear an attempt to eliminate racism. We often hear attempts to dismiss our racial experiences. We hear efforts to dismiss the historical and contemporary problems created by our racialized society. For us it seems that whites, after having gained their successes, now want to lock us out by pretending that racism had no effect in that success. Once again I know this is not the message most of those white conservatives mean to send. But then again they did not take the time to listen to people of color and to know how demands of colorblindness would look to us. That lack of understanding has led to communicating with people of color in a way that alienates them.
Many white conservatives will respond by stating that they really do not understand why we would be put off by pushing a colorblind agenda that ignores the effects of a racialized society. They would argue that they do not believe that racism impacts us today because they do not see a lot of overt examples of racism. But have they sat and listened to the concerns of people of color? Or do they merely assume that their view of society is correct and that there is not truth in any other view? Having an approach of active listening would allow these whites to find ways to communicate with people of color in ways that they can hear the message they offer.
It does not matter how they interpret the concept of colorblindness. What matters is how the people they are trying to talk to interpret this concept. So these white conservatives have to consider if they would rather reach out to those who may not agree with them or if they would rather make themselves feel superior to those individuals by arguing that groups like BLM are racist because they pay attention to race.

But whites are not the only ones who are tone-deaf in this conversation. Recently I have heard some activists of color talk about white supremacy in their critique of our society. Generally what they mean is that there are institutions in this society that favor whites over people of color. We generally talk about institutional racism or discrimination when considering these institutions, but some activists have used the term white supremacy instead.

What do you think the average non-radical white hears when he or she hears the term “white supremacy?” If you stated white hooded men looking for black people to lynch, then give yourself a kewpie doll. You are correct. So when these individuals hear blacks showing anger at them and talking about white supremacy, they will come to the conclusion that these blacks are accusing them of wanting to put blacks back into slavery. After coming to that conclusion, it becomes difficult for them to hear any other concerns these activists have.

Once again it does not matter if these activists do not mean overt racism when they talk about white supremacy. They can redefine that term however they want for the “woke” folks. If they want to communicate to whites about their concerns in our society, then they need to listen to those whites so that they can come up with terms that white conservatives and moderates can hear. If they would rather feel good about themselves and remain self-righteous then by all means keep using the term white supremacy and be a good cultural warrior.

I use these examples to point out how important it is to communicate to others in ways they can hear us. Ironically to do this, we have to first listen to what they have to say. I do not think that the white conservative who talks about colorblindness or the activist of color who talks about white supremacy has bothered to take the time to listen to those outside their ideological peers. Perhaps that person does not think that others have an opinion that is worth listening to. Perhaps they think that if they can intimidate others into unconditionally accepting their “solution” to racial issues, this will solve our racial problems. This has been our pattern over the past few decades. How has that been working out for race relations?

Just as we have been stuck with dysfunctional race relations, we are currently stuck in our red/blue cultural tribalistic divide. As a society we have the next move. We can keep doing what we have been doing. Trying to humiliate and demonize those on the other side of cultural and political issues. We can hope that one day our side will win, and we will be able to vanquish our opponents. We will do this knowing that with the sides fairly evenly matched, such a victory will take a long time and there will be a lot of pain along the way. But hey, if we are so convinced that we, and only we, are right then you have to break a few eggs to make omelets right?

Or we can decide to move towards being willing to listen to those on the “other” side. With what we learn, we can then try to communicate our concerns to them. In the end we can then find a solution that does not give us everything but gives all of us enough so that we can work together on common solutions.


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