Listening to Others--Even When We Don’t Agree with Them
Dr. Zan’s Thoughts:
Many political signs remain uncollected, an ongoing testament to the passionate divisions that currently characterize our nation. In conversations with numerous friends of late, acknowledgment has been the theme--a recognition that we have progressively surrounded ourselves with a more and more like-minded crowd. We, admittedly, have sought only to reinforce our fervently held beliefs. We have comfortably settled into an “us and them” mentality that provides no opportunity to fully understand and honor the experience of another human being. Having just taught a couple of classes of undergrads about defense mechanisms, I can’t help but think that our collective investment in defending and protecting ourselves and our positions has become a significant part of the disconnect in our society.
If I am honest, my management of difficult, disagreeable conversations in recent years has often been to avoid them, unless required by professional responsibility. Family gatherings that start to venture toward the potentially uncomfortable topics of politics, religion, privilege, or -isms quickly get steered back to safer terrain. Yet, I am wondering, can we truly grow and genuinely connect by keeping it safe all the time?
Perhaps the full group provides a dynamic that is more likely to be combustible. But what would happen if I were to have a side conversation with someone in my family who I know to have different perspectives? What would it be like for me to fully listen, without need to jump in with correction, education, or challenge? What if I really put my full effort into hearing and understanding the perspective of the other? I need to remind myself that hearing and understanding does not require or even imply agreement. In fact, hearing and understanding are probably two steps that many of us are guilty of skipping in our haste to assert and defend. I’m coming to realize more and more that offering the gift of listening is a way to honor the humanity of the other person. I can listen with an ear toward their experiences and feelings that have resulted in the clinging to certain beliefs and perspectives. Who knows--if I listen fully, maybe I’ll even get the chance to express myself. However, that needn’t be my goal or my focus. After all, it’s pretty unlikely that either of us is going to change our mind about our views. We might, however, be able to connect as people who happen to have different views.
As the holidays approach, I know that I am going to have the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. There will be ample moments when I can invite a family member to be heard by me in a manner that I have not previously offered. Wish me well as I seek to find a tiny but sturdy footbridge across a great divide.
Dr. Nadine’s Reflections:
I’ve been thinking very much over the last few days about Dr. Zan’s exhortation to be open to dialogue with others who think differently than we do. At this time of year when we can anticipate gathering with our families for the holidays, we’re bringing together groups of people who have shared histories but usually not shared opinions.
I really relate to avoiding conversations that might be difficult or confrontational. I contemplated Dr. Zan’s observation that we want to surround ourselves with like-minded comrades. Why do so many of us do this, skirting the tough interactions? Well, for one thing, it’s just plain uncomfortable to sit with emotions that make us feel bad—irritable, sad, frustrated, guilty, shamed, apprehensive, tense, intimidated, humiliated. Secondly, at get-togethers, we often start out having innocuous discussions about mundane subjects like the weather. Then somehow the dialogues unexpectedly steer toward more significant subjects, in which people hold serious emotional investments—a.k.a. “fervent beliefs.” The unpredictability of the conversational shift can take people off-guard. Plus, not everyone is passionate to the same degree, so the disparities between people’s levels of zeal can themselves generate discomfort.
While these are all contributing factors, another real difficulty in having these conversations comes from a place within ourselves. I think we often are fearful of the exchanges, responding to some perceived threat embedded in the interactions. Challenging emotional states are often activated when we don’t feel completely safe. By that, I mean we are probably talking with someone who we worry won’t receive our point of view with acceptance and without judgement. We may have to prove that our opinion is valid and has merit. And, we may wonder if there will be a punishment attached to disagreeing with our loved ones. Rejection? Withdrawal? Anger? Disgust? Feeling dismissed or diminished? So then why we would we want to chance being the recipient of any of these reactions?
Because we want to connect. We want to be accepted. We want to be heard. We want to be valued for who we are. Because the topic is integral to who we are, and it’s a way to share ourselves.
I was at an event with my Dear One on Saturday. He was talking with an acquaintance at the dinner table. The conversation unpredictably turned to a topic about which both were passionate—and held opposite opinions. I held my breath and watched my Dear One to see how he’d handle the exchange. He was calm and curious; he queried, and commented. I was impressed. I talked to him about it later. He had a very simple answer about managing the conversation. He said, “I’ve had my days of being closed-minded and hot-tempered. Now I know there’s always something I can learn from someone else.”
He’s joining us on the footbridge.