When I ask friends and family members about attempts to discuss politics with others who don’t share their views, common responses are the following:
“I’ve tried, but they don’t listen!”
“It always turns into an argument, and we just end up angry with each other!”
“It’s useless…our values are just too different.”
These days, political discussions most often take the form of a debate, with participants taking turns telling how they see things. Participants rarely listen to understand. Instead, they are waiting for their turn to talk. They wait for an opening, or for a fact they can dispute, or a position they’re ready to defend or oppose.
Listening is something we think we all know how to do, so it can come off as insulting to suggest someone isn’t doing it correctly. Yet, there are lots of ways to listen.
When it comes to politics, even those who are great at listening often fail to really hear opposing views.
When others present their ideas forcefully, we might find ourselves responding with a forceful debate style. If their ideas sound wrong to us, we might feel the urge to set them straight. Yet, to understand them, we need to resist those urges and practice active listening.
According to the Conflict Research Consortium at Colorado State University,
“Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker. The listener must take care to attend to the speaker fully, and then repeats, in the listener’s own words, what he or she thinks the speaker has said. The listener does not have to agree with the speaker–he or she must simply state what they think the speaker said. This enables the speaker to find out whether the listener really understood. If the listener did not, the speaker can explain some more.”
The listening we practice at Crossing Party Lines is an expanded version of active listening. When listening actively and reflecting back what we hear, we invite others to fully express their perspectives, experiences, and beliefs. We come away from the conversation knowing what others think, and why they think it.
“You need to suspend your reaction when you feel like striking back, to listen when you feel like talking back, to ask questions when you feel like telling your opponent the answers, to bridge your differences when you feel like pushing for your way, and to educate when you feel like escalating. Breakthrough”
― William Ury,
Active listening isn’t easy. In his TED talk, The Power of Listening, William shares that even he sometimes finds it challenging. In that same TED talk, he provides crucial advice for maintaining focus: “If we want to listen to the other side, we have to learn to listen to ourselves first.”
Digging deeper isn’t easy, either. Fortunately, we’ve got experts who can help us with this, too.