The Polarization Series: The Power of Listening

Amidst the rise in digital technologies and new avenues for communication, the general quality of our public discourse has declined. As I have explored in this series, modern society has become increasingly fragmented and polarized. We are no longer able to search for areas of compromise or entertain opposing viewpoints.

The cause of the issue stems from our inability to truly listen to one another. In a culture that promotes individualism and self-righteousness, we are conditioned to enter into conversations with our own agenda, set of prejudices and biases. Rather than engage in the mutual pursuit of truth, we are more interested in pushing our opinion and influence onto others.

This mindset inhibits us from truly listening to and appreciating what others are saying. It blocks us off from other perspectives limiting the possibility of entering into a conversation openly, with the chance of changing our minds.

The physicist David Bohm makes an important distinction between dialogue and discussion, highlighting the key differences in these two modes of communication.

Dialogue vs. Discussion

Dialogue is centered around the shared flow of meaning and understanding between all those who are involved. The point is not to try to ‘win’ or ensure that your argument prevails, but rather to mutually search for collective wisdom and truth. This requires one to be adaptable and flexible, accepting that your original views may be wrong or ill-informed.

Good dialogue is sort of like jazz. It revolves around improvisation and spontaneity. Throughout their solos, each musician integrates the melody and phrases of the other band mates. It is a dynamic and collective process. The success of the band is determined by how well the musicians are in synch with one another. This demands that everyone listen closely to the tempo of the drums, the key of the band and the melodies of the other soloists.

Like jazz, the point of dialogue is to build off of the ideas of others, to be open-minded and fully listen to what is being said. When done correctly, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a win-win process for all participants involved – everyone gains.

On the other hand, Bohm characterizes discussions as communication which is aimed at preserving one’s point of view. Those engaging in a discussion are motivated towards persuading others to change their minds. As a result, it is framed more as a debate embodying win-lose dynamics, as the purpose is to have your viewpoint adopted by the group.

There is a time and place for each of these conversational styles. However, social cohesion is undermined and conflicts arise when our discourse becomes increasingly centered around debate, conflict and argumentation.

A consequence of this type of thinking is that we aren’t fully attentive to what others are saying. Further, we don’t validate or clarify that we have a mutual understanding of another’s point of view, leaving room for error and misinterpretation.

As noted by the renowned physicist David Bohm in his book On Dialogue,

Surprisingly, most people have never discovered how to listen, and instead spend most of the time whilst another is speaking working out what to say the moment he or she stops

Listening

To listen attentively or mindfully, is to be completely immersed in the conversation. It is to be aware of our automatic judgements, refrain from interjection and practice empathy. Just as in the practice of meditation where we mindfully and impartially watch our thoughts pass by, a genuine dialogue requires us to do the same when conversing with someone else.

The objective is to be aware and in control of your thoughts, feelings and emotions refraining from being reactive to the situation. It is to engage with openness and be receptive to what the other person is saying.  

When disagreements do arise, research indicates that changing someone’s mind is both rare and difficult. However, techniques do exist to help you navigate through conflict and arguments.

There is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument—and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattle-snakes and earthquakes.

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Nonviolent Communication

Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication focuses on how we can navigate through disagreements through empathy and mutual understanding.

Underneath adversarial language and conflict, lies someone with unmeet human needs. Regardless of who we are, we all have a set of foundational human needs such as health, love, respect, trust etc. The issue is that rather than explicitly communicating these unmet needs, we direct our attention towards criticizing others or defending our views on a topic.

 A good metaphor to think of here is an iceberg. What’s visible to us is the immediate disagreement, while what’s uncovered is a broader set of phycological factors affecting and issues one’s mood and behavior.

Encouraging honesty and transparency, Rosenberg identifies four communication techniques to help us when dealing with difficult circumstances:

  1. Observation: Observe what you notice about the situation objectively and nonjudgmentally.
  2.  Feelings: Express our emotions and feelings clearly and in a thoughtful way.
  3.  Needs: Make a connection between the identified feelings and your unmet human needs. You may feel upset or angry at someone because their actions violated your needs of honesty and connection.
  4. Requests:  Make a specific request in a compassionate manner to rectify the situation based on the feelings and needs you have communicated. Of note, requests are never demanded. Rather, they are asked from a place of mutual understanding and respect for the other person.

All criticism, attack, insults, and judgments vanish when we focus attention on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message. The more we practice in this way, the more we realize a simple truth: behind all those messages we’ve allowed ourselves to be intimidated by are just individuals with unmet needs appealing to us to contribute to their well-being. When we receive messages with this awareness, we never feel dehumanized by what others have to say to us

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

Conclusion

Genuine dialogue and discourse demands a shift from egotistical thinking to a focus on the collective wellbeing, emotions and needs of others. It changes the focus from the content of the conversation to the underlying feelings that are driving one’s behavior and attitude. Only through bringing awareness to the factors and emotions influencing our behavior can we begin to notice and change them.

As we chisel away at our own egos and silence the need to be right all the time, we can start to become more open and empathetic to the needs of others.

After all, we are all humans trying to live collectively on one planet. So rather than being prisoners to our automatic thoughts and emotions, we can all temporarily pause, take a deep breath and try to show some more compassion.

At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

Throughout the past year I’ve been introduced to different communication modalities from platforms like The Stoa and Rebel Wisdom, some of these include:

  1. The Circling Method
  2. Empathy Circles
  3. John Vervaeke’s work on Dialogos

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