Our nation is polarized and angry unlike any time since the Civil War. It seems that we are shouting at each other in person and online. Nobody is listening to one another unless they agree with their opinion. Social media and the 24/7 news cycle magnify this tension.
How do we lower the volume, stop shouting at each other, or get through a dinner with our family or friends without it ending in a fight or someone leaving angry?
These are just some of the questions that I am frequently asked when I do transformational listening workshops. People ask, how do we lower the volume and listen with the current discord and political divide that currently exists in the United States?
People feel stuck and that they have no other choice than to avoid any politically or emotionally charged topics and conversations at all costs. Even worse, many of us are removing people from our lives including loved ones, family members, and close friends, who do not believe what we believe, labeling them as stupid or of no value in our lives because we don’t agree on these issues.
Lifelong friendships and families are being shattered with parents and children no longer speaking with each other.
We have managed to create bubbles in which we listen to and surround ourselves only with those who share our viewpoints, marginalizing others who do not think like us or believe what we believe.
Social media has played a role in this as well, with people associating online only with those they agree with, and the people who shout the loudest online get the most attention.
But what is it costing us not listening to other viewpoints? It is costing us our democracy, the nation we have known, and people we hold dear.
Political disagreements have been a part of our nation’s history dating back to Jefferson and Adams, who despite their great political differences remained friends and listened to each other’s points of view. As did Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as they debated the future of the union. It is what has always stood out about the United States. People the world over have long marveled about the United States’ ability to listen to opposing views.
But now we no longer do. When did it happen that having opposing thoughts, ideas, and views became the recipe for disaster and hatred, instead of success?
One of the main elements of American democracy is providing an effective method to deal with conflicts and improve decision quality. The foundation of finding the best solutions is to bring people with different perspectives and ideas to the table to challenge thinking and spark ideas and listen to all viewpoints.
Doris Kearns Godwin masterfully demonstrated this in her book, Team of Rivals, where she recounted how Abraham Lincoln brought together the men who had challenged him for the presidency and had different beliefs and leanings from him to wield together a team to win the American Civil War. Not only did he bring them together, but Lincoln also listened to them and combined their ideas with his.
Businesses have long followed this model.
In what corporate meeting room would we suggest that we bring people together who think exactly alike to solve a difficult problem or innovate? The democratic process is based on bringing leaders together that represent opposing viewpoints, and the voices of the people they represent, to find areas they agree, can compromise, and create solutions that are best for the majority.
Discord, conversation, and opposing viewpoints were once welcomed allies of the democratic process. At the start of World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt reached across the aisle and brought some of his sharpest political opponents into his cabinet to forge a team committed to victory. He believed opposing ideas would create a consensus and a winning strategy. He told his wife Eleanor, “There is power in listening to all viewpoints, taking the best of each, and combining them into one.” He even nominated a Republican, Harlan Fiske Stone, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to show unity (imagine that now).
Today, the former allies of democracy are now enemies, which polarizes us instead of helping us find common ground. Listening has become a dirty word when everyone wants to shout.
As the expression goes, what we fear we create. Fearing people who think differently and avoiding conversation and discourse only leads to more discord, disconnection, and polarization, which social media exploits. Listening and thoughtfully discussing what we hear, are the answers to lowering the volume and reducing this polarization that is consuming our nation and our daily lives.
Our current approach to this has been flawed. We have been talking to argue or convince others of our point of view to change their minds, so they agree with us. We have been taking the approach of telling in the hopes that this will get us somewhere, and we have been failing miserably.
People generally do not like to be told what to do, and telling rarely works, so we must change our approach.
Instead, we must listen to understand others, not simply to agree or change minds. When we listen to understand the viewpoint of others, rather than argue, this lessens the defenses, opening up a different dialogue that leads to conversation, connection, solutions, and ultimately, lessening what divides us.
We may not agree 100 percent with what is said, but with this approach, the anger and bitterness are lessened, helping to ease the polarization.
While most of us do not want to get involved in politics and are opting out of any involvement, our democratic system is dependent on the active participation of all citizens. It is dangerous ground to set up our lives by surrounding ourselves with only those who agree with us. It is our civic responsibility to participate.
We can all participate by seeking, not avoiding the opinions of others, being open to listening, rather than arguing, and understanding differing opinions and beliefs. Rather than avoiding people with whom you don’t agree, seek them out and ask them to tell you more. Our democracy depends on it.
This approach is the first step in repairing the divisions in our nation. And remember it all starts by listening.