These are polarizing times. Political parties have large issues that divide them, and the stakes seem higher than ever, as we inhabit a world in which our enemies—both large and small—can procure weapons of mass destruction, in which medical science offers us ways to manipulate life and in which an epidemic of denial, chasing one economic bubble after another, has led us to the brink of financial disaster.
Yet, with the very serious problems we must solve, it strikes me that we are attempting to solve them without a critical (maybe the most important) tool: the art of listening. We have become better and better at putting forward arguments, while our capacity to really hear the other side has become further and further diminished. And we focus on verdicts, far more than we seek the truth.
Technology and media are partly to blame. Instant messaging isn’t designed for quiet contemplation of what is being said, nor the nuances of gesture and eye contact that convey a desire to hear more from another person. Facebook is about presentation, not reflection. Television is about point and counterpoint. Today’s dramas rise and fall on conflict, or perhaps comedy, but not compassion.
Even psychiatry, once the bastion of empathy and understanding, has marched in lock step with pharmaceutical companies and third party insurers, right off a cliff. Psychiatric medicines are powerful tools to help patients, but many psychiatrists (not this one) now meet with patients for fifteen minutes and write prescriptions as fast as they can. They might see 30 patients a day.
The art of listening isn’t about convincing anyone of anything or winning any debate or even winning a vote. It is a gentle, quiet, yet very focused and determined quest to understand another human being or group of human beings. It is designed to uncover the underlying needs and motivations and fears and real goals of the person or persons speaking. And it necessarily includes asking many questions designed to dig deeper toward the other individual’s reality. It is a kind of struggle—a squeezing past defenses and posturing, in search of core values and core character and logical consistency.
How long has it been since we’ve seen a Senator or Congressman hand the microphone back to an adversary and say something like, “I’m sorry. I’m trying to understand more about your thinking on this matter, and I may need you to take me a little further into how you came to your position.” How often do we see a television commentator break pace with the point-counterpoint of a debate to say, “Well, actually, I think you’re very right about some of what you say, but I need to hear more about where you’re coming from. I’m really trying to understand what you mean.”
The art of listening, by its very nature, includes a prejudice in favor of the other person. To listen is to presume that the other man must have thought and experience and emotion behind his words—and that all that is worth ferreting out.
Listening requires determination, because people do not necessarily lead with what they are really thinking and feeling—and why. Doing so makes them feel vulnerable, because it erases the distance between the speech and the speaker. It makes the person cozy up to his words, and own them and asks whether he really means them.
In the determination to listen is reassurance to the other person that the listener intends her no harm. Because the quest to understand another is universally experienced by the person speaking as an act of honoring and embracing her, even if the result is to then challenge some of her underlying assumptions or beliefs.
Listening also requires courage, because the listener might just hear something that challenges his own assumptions or even sparks thoughts or memories or ideas which are difficult to internalize and can feel threatening. Yielding one’s position always has the flavor of being overwhelmed, of dying just a little bit, even if it is (when considered rationally) actually about being reborn to a newer perspective.
Ultimately, listening is crucial to personal growth and to growing any entity. Without it, John Kennedy’s inspiring words, will no longer be true:
Our problems are man-made, therefore, they may be solved by man.
No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.