way of life

How to Listen Effectively (Across Ideological Lines)

March 30, 2015

Community is an important aspect of a full life. Building community requires time, commitment, patience, courtesy, and a set of basic skills, including the ability to listen.  The rise of political polarization suggests that people with differing perspectives are decreasingly likely to listen to each other. This disconnect strains relationships between neighbors and relatives and creates a more fearful world in which it is harder to live with purpose and joy. Listening well across ideological lines is the work of a lifetime, but here are a few basic beginning points:

Focus. Turn off your cell phone, turn away from the TV, set aside your long list of plans and daydreams and worries for a little while, and pay full attention to the other person.  Without this full focus you’ll probably get the gist of what the other person is saying but you’re more apt to respond habitually, ‘off the top of your head” and less apt to notice nuances, empathize, or learn something you didn’t expect.

Start with questions.  When someone else says something that contradicts your own political or religious convictions, don’t start by arguing the point. Try saying something like, “This looks very different to me; I’d like to understand how it looks to you. What have you experienced, or what have you heard, that makes this seem true to you?”  This tends to have a disarming effect, shifting people from debate-team mode into storytelling mode. It’s likely (though not certain) that you’ll be able to relate to something in their story, even if you don’t agree with their conclusions.

Tell stories.  Talk about the experiences that have shaped your own convictions. People are less likely to argue with your experiences than with your assertions. Their responses may help you to see a new way of interpreting the stories that have shaped you.

Don’t feel that you have to agree or disagree.  Sometimes it’s important to state firmly and clearly that you see something differently.  Sometimes–especially when people are telling painful stories, even if some of the assumptions embedded in those stories don’t sit well with you–it’s more helpful to listen quietly.  The storyteller may hear what she’s just said and reconsider it if you don’t argue so that they feel the need to defend their position. Quietness often leads the other person to start asking you questions, and to be willing to hear your answers.

Use facts with caution. Debaters on both sides of controversial issues often cite studies or repeat documented anecdotes and then say, “You can’t argue with the facts.” But both sides usually have large arsenals of facts, some of which are specifically designed to demonstrate that the ‘facts’ on the other side are misleading, insignificant or false. Facts do matter, but there are usually quite a lot of them on the ground, and many of them can be arranged without falsification in ways that support different narratives. Explain why the facts you’re quoting matter to you and why you trust them to be true. “This is what I’ve observed,” or “I heard this from X, whom I trust because…” Remember that a person who disagrees with you may not trust the people whom you trust, and may cite and believe authorities whom you don’t trust.  Arguing is not likely to change that.

These disciplines can be tiring. They can also open the way into rich friendships across ideological divides and help to create a world of richer relationships and more diverse communities, a world in which it’s easier for all of us to live life to the fullest.

Further Resources:

The Living Room Conversations Project offers resources for those who wish to deliberately gather with neighbors from different perspectives to create friendships and discuss important issues frankly and respectfully. Learn more at http://www.livingroomconversations.org/

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