This is an edited version of the guest column I wrote for the Nevada Appeal.
“That’s it!” he said, “I’m not talking to you anymore; you’re not listening to me,” and he turned away.
“Humph,” I thought, “I’m a trained professional listener; what does he know?” And I took myself to the shower to get away from him and cool down.
It worked. After a few minutes, I was calmer, and could begin to actually think about the interaction, not just react. And, I realized, it was true—I wasn’t listening to him. Of course, he was not listening to me either, but I had to admit he called it first. So, armed with this insight, and a willingness to put my own views aside for the moment, I went back and told him I was ready to listen.
I no longer remember the content of what we talked about, but memory of the process lingers. We went from having what I call an A/B conversation: “It’s A!” “No, it’s B!” “No, it’s A!” (and on it goes) to a productive exchange where we both felt heard.
I often think about that incident because I see this kind of thing happening more and more in our public, political sphere. I worry that we’re never going to be able to solve the problems that we face if we can’t talk to each other and find common ground. It can feel satisfying to feel that we are right and the other wrong, but ultimately the ground gets poisoned by our righteousness, and we drift further and further apart.
Years ago someone asked me if I want to be right or happy. Many of our arguments seem to be about being right, and they do not seem to bring happiness. Recently there has been a lot written about people not being swayed by facts (even if the facts can be verified); facts need to be built over a scaffolding of emotion. That emotion is not anger, but empathy, if there is to be any possibility of being heard and hearing.
Among the most fundamental needs of humans are safety and belonging. And as mammals, humans need contact; we are social beings who rely on each other for support and to create meaning. If we don’t feel safe, we are constantly scanning for danger. We tend to see those who are different as Other, and band together against them. Then the shouting, and worse, begins.
I’d like to invite you to a different way of communication, one in which we care for each other and work to understand, rather than be right. I recently learned about a project called Living Room Conversations (LRC), where two people with opposite views of an issue each invite two other people to come together; then the six people have a conversation about the topic.
Ground rules provide the safety required to have a meaningful conversation. The process only works if the people attending are genuinely interested in developing understanding and relationships with people who are different in their views and/or experiences.
Recently Terry McLaughlin wrote a column in the Union, a paper serving Nevada City, CA, about her experience in an LRC: “Could we share opposing outlooks without belittling each other? Could we hear uncomfortable truths and own the paradox they might create in our own worldview? Could we accept, as one of my friends said, that ‘none of us have horns coming out of our heads?’ I found that the answer to those questions, on a personal level, was yes, we can.”
And I believe we can too, whether we do if formally in a program such as LRC or informally as we go about our days.