Becoming a Splendid Auditorium: How Listening Can Bring Us Together

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In the US, civil discourse has taken a backseat to arguing and hostility. What we need instead is a way to really listen to one another and stand together. The example of the Balkan people can help.

In 1991, I attended a study abroad program at the University of Oslo in Norway. It was an international program, so my fellow students came from all over the globe. Many of them came for the Peace Program and they had serious concerns on their minds. I didn’t. Like a lot of the American students, I was there for fun; I thought it would be a lark to spend a semester in Europe (it was). But even though I was busy having fun, I still paid attention, especially to the friends I made. Consequently, although I faithfully attended my classes, it was my fellow students who gave me my true education.

The people who interested me the most were the Eastern Europeans. One of my roommates was from Latvia, so I learned first-hand about life in the Baltic States and their struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. It was a tumultuous time for them. For those of you who know your world history, the year 1991 may ring a bell. It should, because that was the year of the demise of the Soviet Union. I got a major schooling in geopolitics through my friends who lived in the USSR and the surrounding areas.

Tension was high. Although the students attending the program were young and had no direct impact on policy, the personal was highly political. I got the feeling that violence could erupt at any moment and for any reason. There was almost a mini-riot in Norwegian History class one day when one of the USSR students’ watch started playing the national anthem of St Petersburg. Another edge of violence was sharpened when a soccer ball was kicked into a picnic table where I was sitting with a Russian friend. He said — quite off-handedly (and rudely) — to the Lithuanian soccer player, “You can have your freedom; just don’t ruin our picnic table.”

When I first met my foreign friends, I did not understand their anger (yes I know, typical ignorant American but hey, I was young) and the determination they had to use their education to help their respective countries. As I got to know them better, I understood that they were fighting for more than improving their own lives. They were fighting for the soul of their country, for who they were going to be as a people. And that’s where I think we are in the United States today. In about two months, we’re holding an election that’s going to decide who we are as a people and how we move forward.

In the meantime, it’s kind of gotten ugly. I’ve never seen such tension around politics as I see today; it’s like people have lost their minds. I am constantly hearing stories about people getting into arguments with friends, co-workers and even strangers who disagree politically. The vitriol is practically dripping from the walls. My sister told her exercise group that she was late to their meeting because she stayed up late watching the Democratic National Convention. Her instructor immediately snapped, “Party of idiots!” and went on to savagely disparage a high ranking member of it. A friend’s staff meeting ended abruptly after several of them mentioned a funny video they’d seen of singing grannies, and others didn’t like it. Another friend was shocked when her neighbor venomously said, “I’m so sick of you people!” when she mentioned how important healthcare was to her voting decision this year. I’ve heard stories of people putting their fists through walls, friendships ending over political disagreements, family members refusing to speak to each other, and strangers coming to near blows on public transportation. What has happened to our civil discourse?

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The answer to that question contains many elements: the tsunami of money that has crashed into our democracy, the inaccuracy of the information people are receiving, the abdication of critical thinking skills and the seeking out of only those viewpoints that coincide with our own. However, I think the largest factor in play is the breakdown in communication. As the prison warden in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke said, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Part of communication is listening. Hearing is about receiving sound waves; it doesn’t require much from you. Listening is much more involved. It takes hearing, thinking and understanding. As Alice Duer Miller once said,

Listening is not merely not talking . . . it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us. You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer.

Whenever I counsel groups of two or more, I’ve found that listening is almost always a problem for them. When emotions run high, listening often stops and that seems to be happening to us as a country. We are angry, we’re refusing to listen to one another and I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse. What do we need to do in order to get through this most contentious of election cycles? How can we start being unified once again (well, as much as we ever were)?

The first thing we need to do is acknowledge what is driving the seething level of anger. Many people believe that anger is a primary emotion but it isn’t. Anger is actually a mask that covers vulnerable emotions, specifically fear and sadness. Anger often makes people feel powerful while vulnerable emotions make people feel exposed and weak. Which would you prefer? A large number of people choose anger.

However, if we are to get past our volatility, we need to dig deeper into what is actually going on, and that primarily lies with our vulnerability. A lot of people are afraid. We are fearful of hard economic times and what the future will bring. We are terrified that things will not get better and we don’t know what to do. We are also sad. Many people understand that our way of living cannot be maintained, and we grieve for what we will lose. While it is difficult to accept these emotions, that’s exactly what we need to do, because people can connect around them. Anger pushes people away, but vulnerability lets them in. Vulnerability can lead to listening. Vulnerability can lead to an understanding that, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Vulnerability can lead to connection.

In order to do this, we need to truly talk with one another. We need to tell our personal stories, not repeat political spin we heard on the news. We need to share our emotions and let others know the reasons for them. And we need to listen. We need to empathize with what people are telling us, and try to stand with them in their distress. If we do that for them, hopefully they will do that for us. In short, we need to come together instead of constantly tearing each other apart.

As for my Eastern European friends, they figured things out. They understood, in a way we here in the United States have yet to fathom, that only in unity is there power. On August 23, 1989, approximately two million people formed the Baltic Chain. In a stunning display, they literally stood shoulder to shoulder across all three Baltic States to demonstrate their desire for change. It worked. Six months later, Lithuania declared its independence. In the summer of 1991, the Estonian and Latvian parliaments did the same. Although their circumstances were different, the Baltic people nevertheless showed us the way to improve our future. We should take heed.

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