Learning to Listen in Polarized Times

You probably recognize this scenario: A friend or family member makes a comment about a current issue or political figure, and you feel your body and mind reacting. Your blood pressure rises, muscles tense and a series of automatic thoughts enters your mind like, “How could they say that?” or “They are so wrong!” Maybe you feel an urge to blurt something out in response or to challenge them. Or maybe you simply decide to stay silent or to walk away in an attempt to not blow up.

We have all been there. I was definitely in that scenario recently when talking about politics with a friend and I have to confess that I did not handle it well. I ended up in a heated argument, and while my friend and I were able to “agree to disagree” and move on, it left me regretful and questioning why I had reacted that way. After all, I was a therapist and trained in listening skills, yet I had failed to apply those skills when I needed them most.

That left me wondering — why is that? Why is it so difficult to have conversations with those who think differently than us? At a time when engaging in productive dialogue about important societal issues is more important than ever, we seem to be struggling as never before. While there are many reasons this is happening, I believe there are few that are especially universal:

We are afraid.

It was not immediately obvious to me how fear played a part in my ability to listen to my friend’s point of view, as what I felt was more anger and indignation, but when reflected more deeply, I realized that fear was a factor. My fears had to do with what it might mean if I let go of my presuppositions and considered my friend’s perspective. At some level, this can feel very threatening. Entering into a different framework for understanding an issue than the one we are used to can cause cognitive dissonance and a temporary state of imbalance. Yet without the willingness to enter into this uncomfortable space, we lose the ability to learn new information or to expand our understanding of a situation. We are trapped in our limited points of view and robbed of a richer, more complex framework with which to approach the world.

Our sense of identity is threatened.

Connected to our fear of the unknown is the related fear that if we consider a different viewpoint, then something core to how we see and understand ourselves will be threatened. All of us create inner pictures of who we are and what it means to be me. What we may not recognize is that we may have merged our identity to some greater or lesser extent with a particular idea or outlook. When someone challenges that idea, it can feel like they are challenging our identity and perhaps even our worth. The remedy for this is to develop a sense of who we are that goes beyond our particular opinions and to root our identity in our common humanity with others and in our intrinsic value as human beings. With that attitude, we can feel secure enough to open up our minds and hearts to viewpoints different than our own.

Listening is hard work.

In our Western culture, we are used to shortcuts and quick fixes which are the enemies of true listening. As management philosopher Peter Drucker put it, “Listening is not a skill; it is a discipline.” In other words, listening takes a great deal of conscious effort and intention. It means putting aside our own agenda and opinions to focus on the words, ideas and feelings of another human being. This goes against our ego-driven impulses by requiring us to momentarily forget ourselves in order to be fully present to another person and to consider what they have to say — a formidable challenge indeed.

We get flooded.

Often even when we try our best to listen, we get overwhelmed by negative emotions and are not able to do it effectively. This phenomenon, known as emotional hijacking,” happens when the thinking parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex) are literally taken over by the emotional parts of the brain (the amygdala and other more primitive parts). This puts our nervous system into a state of fight-flight-freeze resulting in reactive behaviors that sabotage our ability to listen. The good news is that while these processes are very automatic, we can become more aware that they are happening and learn to interrupt them. With practice, we can better handle our emotions and develop skills that help us stay calm.

We forget listening is worth it.

The final reason we sometimes fail to listen is because we fail to recognize or forget about its importance. In our busyness and stress, or in our habitual reactivity, we choose expediency over what really matters in the long run: relationships, connection and our ability to learn and grow. The latter is important because without listening to other viewpoints we can get stuck in a more limited and oversimplified understanding of the world. The former — listening’s a role in facilitating relational connection and belonging – is even more vital. From infants, whose very survival depends upon someone listening and responding when they cry, to adults, whose mental health can be jeopardized by relationships or environments where they feel chronically invalidated, dismissed or ignored – all human beings need attunement and a sense of being heard to truly thrive. Listening is often a lifesaving bridge that brings us out of isolation and enables us to belong.

This idea was well captured by the words of bestselling author and political activist Bryant H. McGill when he said, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Let that inspire you the next time you hear someone say something you don’t agree with or don’t understand and you are tempted to either react in anger or walk away. Embrace the challenge of truly listening by remembering that you and the person you disagree with share one world and are part of one human family. Be willing to enter the temporary discomfort of considering a perspective different than your own. Not only will your understanding of important issues expand, but you might bring a little more connection into our polarized world.

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