Listening in a Context of Differences

The poster that I display when I’m listening explains that I’m doing this, in part, to become a better listener. When I started listening roughly a year and a half ago, I believe I was referring particularly to becoming better at listening to people who were sharing things that I wouldn’t agree with, might find hard to accept, would be diametrically opposed to, and such.

Have I succeeded to some extent? I think so. The experience of the project has forced me to consider at a fairly deep level questions such as: Why do I listen? What am I trying to achieve? Do we have the ability to influence or change one another? and If so, how does that happen?

I’d say that, for the bulk of my life, I believed or accepted that it was my responsibility to try to realize a more humane and just world based on learning about issues that seemed important to the welfare of people and the planet, and to stand up for those issues/beliefs as opportunities arose. More crudely put, I thought that it was my responsibility to stand up for those things and try to persuade others of the correctness of my positions and beliefs.

As I have aged and experienced, I have become much more uncertain regarding this outlook. I say this in part because it appears that people have become more vociferous in the stands they take, more certain of the rightness of their positions, more steadfast in holding to those positions, and less likely to even consider seeking compromise. The act of working to convince others across perceived lines of difference seems to have fueled difference rather than facilitating a sense of commonality or consensus.

While this project is a work in progress for me, I believe that my experience in listening to a great diversity of people, including those whose beliefs or ideas differ from my own significantly, and whose perspectives I don’t embrace, has brought me to a different perspective on my responsibility to other people, on how change occurs, and how best to get both myself and others to consider alternative ways of thinking.

What I have found is that listening to people – really giving them the time and space to express themselves – is more likely to lead them to ask me what I think about something, and to really listen to me, than any other approach I’ve taken. My theory of the case is this: Most of us are rarely if ever listened to and truly heard by other another person, in the context of any subject or concern. As a result, I think that we feel diminished, marginalized, perhaps even non-existent in some sense. It is possible to listen to someone saying things that may be meaningless to you or antithetical to your beliefs, yet through this simple act you are giving them this tremendous gift of your time and attention and earnestness. If your heart is in it, by which I mean that you see them as a fellow human being in all their complexity and contradiction, you are making a connection, building trust, and creating the possibility of getting to the heart of people, to their pains and fears and aspirations and guilts and regrets. If you are true to the best in yourself in doing so, people will sense that something real is happening that transcends the armor of political affiliations and clans and us-versus-them mentalities that burden us, allowing for mutual vulnerability and the experience of care and compassion on an essential level.

I have experienced a number of instances where people who sat with me began by sharing strong opinions about something, or were trying to convince me of something, and I gave them the time and silence to do so. And somewhere along the way they realized that they were really being listened to, something that they are not used to experiencing, or wouldn’t expect to experience with someone out of the blue. And perhaps they stopped. Perhaps they asked me, ‘What do you think?’ One person was sharing his religious beliefs with me, and after 10 or 15 minutes he stopped and looked at me, and said something to the effect of, ‘Wow, you really are a good listener, aren’t you?’ It seemed that he’d lost the thread of his own dialogue and tuned in to this surprising reality of being listened to, and perhaps finding some kind of validation in that, or even having a sense in that second that God felt more present in that moment than most.

What does all of this mean to me? While we all hold opinions, and likely feel quite strongly about some of our beliefs or the things we know, I have come to a sense that we are not going to ‘convince’ one another out of the mess we find ourselves in. I am not saying that people should or will stop speaking and working for their vision of the better world that many of us want to see.

Rather, I feel at this point in my own journey that somehow, at the root of that search, the ability to see and appreciate our fellow beings as worthy and interdependent partners in this world and this life is somehow at the heart of achieving healthier people and a healthier world. We need to feel that we are responsible for one another, and that our welfare and well-being is tied to all of those around us.

I think this means that a personal focus on winning – as in ‘winning’ arguments – is not a particularly healthy way of viewing our relationship to those around us. I don’t need to convince someone of the ‘wrong’ nature of their outlook when I meet them, even if that is my outlook. Perhaps it is more fruitful to convince them that I hear them, I see them, I care about them, and that ideally I hope they would extend those things to me. And having done so, perhaps we create the basis for meaningful discussion and even contention, based on that mutual respect and care. The adage says that Rome wasn’t built in a day. I don’t know how if ever I will live to see a world more reflective of the things that I value. But my instincts tell me that if it is to occur, it will be built on a broad commitment to mutual respect and care. It will not – cannot – be ‘won’.

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