Have We Forgotten How to Listen?

About the Author

Thanks to Janet Morrison of Harrisburg, NC for accepting our invitation to elaborate on her comment on Harry Strong’s Biases series. Janet is a writer, blogger, and published author. Information about Janet and her work is available on Janet’s Writing Blog or Janet Morrrison Books.com. Views from the Edge added the headings and graphics to the original text of “Have We Forgotten How to Listen?”

Have We Forgotten How to Listen?

by Janet Morrison

Throughout much of 2021 I participated in an online group discussion of LEAPFROG: How to Hold a Civil Conversation in an Uncivil Era, by Janet Givens, M.A. The recent “Blind Biases” series of posts by Harry L. Strong on Gordon C. Stewart’s “Views from the Edge” blog reminded me of Ms. Givens’ thought-provoking book. 

How do we have that difficult conversation with someone with whom we disagree? 

Our nation is more polarized now than in any other time in my life. The assassination of a U.S. President, the Civil Rights Movement, the racial desegregation of the public school I attended, the “Cold War,” the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the near-eradication of polio, the “space race” with the U.S.S.R., the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the advent of the internet, 9/11, global warming, and an attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol have been the soundtrack of my life.

From verbal filters to open floodgates

Whereas, polite society used to dictate a level of restraint in public discourse, social media and a former U.S. President who demonstrated no such verbal filter, opened the floodgates for anyone and everyone to voice their opinions as often and as loudly as they desired. 

The result of this shift is that the individuals with the most extreme views feel emboldened to not only voice their opinions but to launch vile personal attacks against anyone who dares to disagree. With all filters turned off, we have transitioned into a country in which everyone is expressing their opinions and no one is listening.

LEAPFROG

The “L” in Ms. Givens’ LEAPFROG book stands for listening. It made me think about the necessity of listening if we’re to have a productive conversation on any level.

In our compulsion to force our ideas down the throats of others, we’ve lost our ability to listen. 

When’s the last time you listened to someone whose views on politics differed from yours? No. I mean, did you really listen? Or were you so wrapped up in your viewpoint and your desire to convert the other person to your way of thinking that you didn’t genuinely listen to the other party?

We’re all guilty. We’ve not only brought all our biases to the table; we’ve forgotten our table manners. 

We’ve forgotten how to listen.

Alert and ready for the Unexpected 

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 2001 defines the word listen as follows: “(1) to pay attention to sound…; (2) to hear something with thoughtful attention:  give consideration…; (3) to be alert to catch an expected sound.” If I may be so bold, I would add a fourth: to be alert to catch an unexpected sound, or word, or explanation. 

Our modern lives are filled with noise. The TV is always on at home. The radio is always on in the car, often tuned into talk radio. Music or a cellphone conversation is always playing in our ears. We’re so attuned to hearing something 24/7 that we can’t go grocery shopping or jogging without having earbuds in our ears. Silence makes us uneasy. Without being aware of it, we’ve trained ourselves to listen to what we want to hear, and this training has conditioned us not to have to listen to anything we don’t want to hear.

Our modern lives are filled with noise. The TV is always on at home. The radio is always on in the car, often tuned into talk radio. Music or a cellphone conversation is always playing in our ears. We’re so attuned to hearing something 24/7 that we can’t go grocery shopping or jogging without having earbuds in our ears. Silence makes us uneasy. Without being aware of it, we’ve trained ourselves to listen to what we want to hear, and this training has conditioned us not to have to listen to anything we don’t want to hear.

Let that sink in. Has our desire to surround ourselves and our very ears only with those sounds we want to hear led us to become closed-minded to truly listening to “the other side” when it comes to the difficult issues of the day? Have we lost our ability to listen? Have we lost our curiosity?

I’m Guilty

I’m guilty. I don’t watch the cable news channels that I know espouse political views with which I disagree. When I hear someone whose viewpoints are in opposition to mine, my knee-jerk reaction is to get angry and make judgments. I admit that I don’t care why their world view is so different from mine. I can’t fathom why they think the way they do, and I’m guilty of not trying to see things from their perspective.

I grew up in a fairly homogeneous community. There weren’t any rich kids in my school. Most people went to church. Most people obeyed the law. As far as I knew, until a few years ago, everyone I grew up with saw the world pretty much the way I did. When I was growing up, I knew there were Republicans and Democrats, but people rarely advertised their political affiliation.

People of various political leanings could be friends. Those who made a point to reveal their political party registration didn’t demonize those of the other party. They could socialize and attend church together. They could even discuss politics and remain friends. They could display the American flag at their homes without being labeled as agreeing with a particular political party. They could get vaccinated against diseases without being ostracized.

One of the sad things for me in this era of polarization is learning that people I thought I knew well, I don’t really know. How can children who were raised like I was raised become adults with whom I have nothing in common?

The most frightening thing about this is that we each love our country; however, we love it in ways that mean we can’t have a civil conversation about it. We not only aren’t listening to each other, we have lost the patience, the energy, the tolerance, and the curiosity to listen to one another.

Until we listen

Two people in a heated argument about religion when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University. Photo by David Shankbone, uploaded from Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Until we learn to listen, family gatherings will escalate into shouting matches and hurt feelings. Congregations will divide into cliques and inflict wounds on our collective Body of Christ. Knowing another person’s political affiliation will influence all our dealings and interactions with them.

Until we recapture our ability to listen and want to know why the other person sees things the way they do, we’re spinning our wheels.

Until both parties to the conversation bring honesty, frankness, and a genuine curiosity to the discussion, our country is not going to move out of this predicament we find ourselves in.

Until we are willing to listen, we can’t call it a conversation. 

Until we listen, we won’t discover what we have in common. 9/11 did that for us. I pray it doesn’t take such a tragedy to reunite us.

Tell us what you’re thinking. Let’s talk.

Gordon C. Stewart, host of Views from the Edge, author of Be Still: Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 20, 2021.

2 thoughts on “Have We Forgotten How to Listen?

  1. What a powerful piece on Listening (including practical Listening advice), Janet! Thanks so very much! I had some similar thoughts and ideas as I was wrapping up the “Blind Biases” series, but this “windy preacher” had already rambled on far too long. Your wise words reminded me of a couple of pieces I’d collected over the years (which unfortunately I’ve lost) entitled “Please Hear What I’m NOT Saying” and “I Love You Enough to Listen.” Thanks again! Have a blessed Christmas and Epiphany. Harry

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  2. Thanks, Gordon, for the reminder. I am guilty of not listening. I think my greatest challenge is the “them” and “us” people in the conversation both think they are Christians yet must be listening to a different God. The Bible is open for interpretation-as it always has been to some degree. Now we no longer see “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) the same.

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