Week 651: Listening To Each Other

The U.S. election has now come and gone, and we find ourselves either reassured by the outcome or overwhelmed with fear, anger, distress, despair, and disappointment, among other feelings. We see vividly the immense divide that exists in our country and find ourselves having to confront and deal with wounds and perspectives that demand attention.

I recently watched a segment on 60 Minutes that deeply impacted me. There was a group of people with diverse political opinions and they were interviewed by a man whose expertise is in dealing with these kinds of group discussions. What was astonishing, and deeply concerning, was how quickly the group moved into shouting and insults, on both sides of the issues being discussed. It was sad and alarming to see, and reminded me of the quality of communication I see daily on Facebook, which is the only social media venue I regularly visit.

As a trauma specialist, I know that, when we feel threatened, our thinking brain goes off-line and we perceive and respond from survival responses, drawing on the part of the brain that motivates our fight/flight mechanisms. As I watched the group on 60 Minutes become highly activated when someone shared an opinion or belief that someone else didn’t agree with, I found myself wondering how social media has supported and reinforced this kind of interaction. It looks like we are losing, or have lost, the capacity to tolerate difference in each other and, with the challenges we face as we go forward, reclaiming this skill set seems to me to be of the utmost importance.

As I’ve thought about what I see regularly on Facebook, and what has concerned me for a long time, it seems that we now pretty immediately move into attack mode when someone says something with which we don’t agree and, over time, this kind of response is going to create continuing and even more entrenched polarization. We have somehow given ourselves permission not to respect other people and their perspective when it is different from our own.

This got me to thinking of groups I’ve been in where we had a talking stick or talking stone—sometimes even a talking candle, where the person holding the object has the floor. The gift from everyone else is simply to listen, hopefully to take in what the person is saying in an attempt to understand where they are in their experience, and to make internal room to receive the communication without having to generate a response. This kind of group experience requires us to step outside the habit of formulating a response as someone is talking, the habit of not really listening and not really reaching toward understanding the other person’s perspective.

For this week’s experiment, I invite you to pay more attention to how you listen and, also, to nurture your ability to take the time to understand what another person says, to give yourself the gift of being able to at least know how they have arrived at their position, even when you disagree with it. Our collective social media habits don’t seem to foster a sense of respect and connection, so we need to take these on as personal practices in our everyday activities.

Please remember to respect yourself, as well, as you bring awareness to how you listen, or don’t, to people with whom you fundamentally disagree. It always helps to have curiosity available, as curiosity opens us to experience and tends to be the opposite of the threat response that is so active when we are afraid or angry. Also, it helps to remember that judgments—of yourself or others—also don’t tend to help when you’re attempting to understand someone whose world view, beliefs, and experiences are fundamentally different from your own.

Our election underscores the depth of healing we need if we are to live together in a diverse and dynamic country. We can each be part of this healing if we bring our awareness to our personal contribution to our collective experience.

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