I recently got to witness something amazing and out of the ordinary — active listening. Active listening is when one person truly listens to another, with no intention of trying to persuade or argue; but with the full intention of understanding the other person and valuing them.
Here’s what happened.
A friend of mine (Max) who really doesn’t like Paul Ryan, was listening to another friend (Rob) who adores Paul Ryan. So yeah, that right there is where most conversations stop. But, Rob was talking about his sadness at the news of Ryan’s retirement because he and his family had been directly and positively impacted by Ryan at a crucial time in their lives.
Max listened and asked questions. His own political leanings did not create a need within him to “correct” Rob’s viewpoint. Max truly wanted to hear about Rob’s experience and honored that experience because he saw how much it meant to Rob. The conversation ended with no political banter over who was better; no persuasive arguments; no dismissal of ideas. It was a genuine conversation, with genuine listening, which led to a genuine understanding for Max of where Rob was coming from.
I know, I just wrote about politics. (Sorry, but not sorry.) We all know how divided things are right now, and the phrase “if only we’d just listen to each other” is often tossed around. But the reason this interaction between my friends stuck with me is that it wasn’t about listening defensively or listening with an agenda in the back of the mind; it was about listening for the sake of understanding another human being.
Active listening has become a lost art in our society. Social media is probably a big part of that. We have the ability now to post our ideas and views without having to make eye contact or care about the person who reads the post. We have the ability to argue back without ever actually listening to the full story. Every statement is its own defensive argument.
But listening, really listening, to another’s point of view does not mean you are required to change your mind about how you feel or what you believe. Having an understanding of how others got the opinions they have is not a threat to you.
I’m sure we all have friends who, on social media, we cannot stand, but in real life we know to be good people. I know I do. I get angry and offended by people’s posts and then have to reconcile their comments with the kind, loving person I actually know them to be.
But here’s the thing. I don’t know the reasons behind their viewpoints. All I’m getting on Facebook is their opinion. And we all know that every opinion we have is born out of life experiences, religious faith, upbringing, class, gender, etc. But we also all know, in our core, that people do the best they can at the moment with whatever information they have and whatever they know.
Now I’m not encouraging you to start asking everyone to explain themselves, their thoughts, and their beliefs. But I wonder what would happen if we took the time to listen, really listen, with no motivations, to what people’s stories are.
Recently a friend posted on Facebook an article that talked about the only way for America to solve its issues might be to divide: half right wing, half left. Another friend responded, “Isn’t that what the Civil War was?” This idea of dividing the country into two is not going to happen, it just isn’t realistic.
We live among mixed company; we go to church and work with people who stand “on the other side.” That’s not going to change. And I don’t really want it to. Differing opinions and beliefs teach me new things about the world all the time.
And listening to others with the sole intent of understanding and valuing them as a person, well that is an amazing gift we can share with each other. So, for now, thank YOU for listening to me.