Listening and talking

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.

The Power of Listening | William Ury

“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, Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations

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.”

What a difference a word can make: How a single word can change your conversation

Digging deeper isn’t easy, either. Fortunately, we’ve got experts who can help us with this, too.

Listen on!

Active Listening

Give Your Full Attention

Your goal is to listen without assumptions, judging, and reacting. The farther apart we are in our views, the more important this is.

  • Face the speaker and maintain eye contact.
  • Be attentive yet relaxed.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Be curious, open to learning, and clear about the fact that there’s a lot you don’t know.
  • Try to feel what the speaker is feeling. Empathy is the core of active listening.
  • Never take anything personally. Everything speakers say is a statement about them and their views, not about you or people you know.

Ask Clarifying Questions

Ask clarifying questions by holding your hand up in a “C” formation. Wait for speakers to pause.

  • Ask questions only to ensure understanding.
  • Never change the speaker’s subject or insert your own talking points.
  • Use verbal and non-verbal cues to show genuine interest:
    • Eye contact
    • Posture
    • Nodding, smiling, saying “Yes, go on.”
  • When speakers have finished, thank them for clarifying, and if necessary reflect back to check your understanding.

Check Your Understanding

Check to see if the message you received is the one intended. Summarize and reflect what you heard.

Let speakers know that you are reflecting, so they can clarify their messages if you’ve misunderstood.

Use the following techniques to check your understanding.

  • “What I’m hearing is…”
  • “Sounds like you’re saying…”

Check in after reflecting back:

  • Did I get that right?
  • Did I hear you right?
  • Did I get it all?

What Gets in the Way of Listening?


  • Are we looking for a fight? A chance to rant and rave at the opposing side?
  • Do we want to show others how wrong they and their views are?
  • Do we think we can’t avoid it, so we might as well get it over with?
  • Are we genuinely curious about what others think and why?

Our intentions set the tone for how we participate and how the exchange unfolds.

Survival Instincts

We are hard wired to survive.

We are programmed to identify potential threats and react. We react to perceived threats upon our personal safety, our family, our beliefs, and our identity.

When we feel threatened, we react defensively.

When we talk with others whose ideas challenge our own, including family members who we love and honor, we usually default to defensive or offensive responses.

What If…Instead of being defensive, we consider a curious approach?

Beliefs and Assumptions

If we enter into conversations believing that others are wrong and we are right, then it’s unlikely the conversations will be productive.

If we assume we know what others believe and think, then it’s difficult to be curious.

If we assume the meaning of our words is the same, especially politically charged words like freedom, conservative, liberal, pro-business, pro-labor, and political correctness, we can’t really know whether we agree or not.