The first week of 2021 has been brutal. It makes no difference which side of the political aisle you support; it’s been a brutal week. But then, all of 2020 has been brutal too.
I hear all the time that we must step back and compromise with those we disagree with. I don’t agree that we always have to compromise. A favorite talk show host and author of mine, Dennis Prager, says he prefers “clarity over agreement”. What we often want is to be heard and understood, not necessarily to always be agreed with. The problem with the clarity and even compromise is that most of us don’t know how to listen and to really hear what the other person is saying, so clarity and compromise are often unattainable. We are so focused on getting our point across and, in the process belittling the other person’s points, that we no longer hear what is being said. We argue from emotions and when our voice isn’t heard, we argue louder and in ALL CAPS. We belittle, we laugh at the other person by using emojis, we make assumptions about a person’s character, but we never truly listen. All we have to do is read through comments on a contentious post in social media (and even not so contentious) to see this played out.
As a professional counselor, I’m in the business of listening. But it’s not just enough to hear what my client is saying. I must understand what my client is saying. In essence I have to get into my client’s head and emotions. I don’t always agree with my clients and often my role is to challenge my client’s thinking, but I can’t challenge a person’s thinking until I fully understand what they are thinking and the emotions that underlie all those thoughts. I am searching for clarity.
Now I’m going to be open here and tell you that I don’t always listen well in my private life, with my husband and daughter, with friends, and even people I chat with on social media. Sometimes my emotions take over. Listening to understand is hard for all of us. But I am trying hard to do better with the knowledge that I’m a work in progress.
I recently belonged to a Facebook group. The moderator asked members how they were doing with self-care after the attack on the Capitol Building. One person responded that she is trying to listen to others and especially to people who are conservative. The moderator took exception to this answer and challenged the respondent about not caring about the “domestic terrorism” the moderator saw perpetrated on the Capitol. It has to be noted that domestic terrorism was not even discussed in the first person’s response. The moderator read this into the person’s response. Another person came to the defense of the first person and the moderator didn’t like this person doing that and removed the second person from the group, justifying her response with her wanting to “hold space” and have a respectful discussion and the second person was not being respectful. Again there was no disrespect in the second person’s comments, just a differing viewpoint. The problem was the moderator wasn’t hearing what the other two people were saying (I suspect because of her biases) and because she didn’t agree with them, the discussion was therefore no longer respectful in the moderator’s mind. I was ready to respond to defend both parties, but decided that the moderator was so set in her being right and not hearing what was being said, that my response would not make a difference. I then removed myself from this group.
This exchange is all too common, whether it be on social media or in person.
I do marriage counseling as part of my practice and not listening to understand is a common problem among couples. One partner will say something and the comment is not clear or it needs further explanation. Or as often happens, the other partner is hearing what is being said through their own lens of experience or their own biases. The key to the success of couple’s therapy is teaching each partner how to listen to understand. The key to each of us having successful relationships is to do the same.
So, how do we listen to understand? The first step is understanding within ourselves why we are having an emotional or visceral response to what the other person is saying. What buttons are being pushed or what triggers have been activated? These buttons or triggers are ones that immediately put us on the defensive in some way. I know I often respond quickly to some issues because my hypocrisy button has been pushed. This is my “they say one thing, but do another thing” button. Clients often tell me about hearing their parents or someone else in the words of another person. They are not responding to the person talking, but to that other person’s voice in their heads. People also respond because of untreated trauma in themselves – the words being said, the tone of voice, the perceived disrespect, the fear of the event occurring again, etc. – and all of these can shut off the ability to listen. Examine yourself and your impediments to listening. Ask yourself what it is you are responding to.
The second step is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is empathy. In my couple’s counseling session, I have partners rotate between being the expressor and the empathizer. As the expressor is talking, the empathizer is really listening to what is being said and often what is not being said. This empathizer is not listening to refute or to defend him or herself. That will come if needed. Right now, the empathizer is trying to understand. For example, a couple is arguing about the husband not helping his wife with housework. She is angry because she asks him to help and he blows her off with “I’ll get to it”. He is defensive because he says he works hard and just wants to relax and says she is nagging him. What is not being said by the wife is that her husband not helping says to her that she is not important enough for him to care. Him helping her is a sign of love and respect in her mind. My goal as the therapist is to help the husband hear what is not being said by putting himself in her shoes and by being open to really listening to her, and asking questions that can get to the root of the disagreement.
This leads me to my third step. Ask for clarification as to what is being said. Questions like “Tell me what you mean by that word you used?”, “I don’t understand what you just said. Can you tell me again?”, and “Please give me more context to what you just said” invite the other person to explain more clearly what is meant and to take away confusion that leads to arguments or being defensive. We often assume the other person knows what we’re saying, but as I often see in my counseling sessions, this is not the case.
My fourth step is to understand that compromise is an art and that we often have more in common with a person than we disagree with. Find that common ground. What do you both believe in and support or love to do? It could be a love of animals or children or areas that you’ve both visited or want to visit. When we start with the assumption that we are more alike than different, compromise is easier. And if there isn’t a compromise solution, we can still look at the other person with respect and a mutual understanding that we disagree on this one issue, but have common beliefs on many more.
My fifth step in listening to understand is to be careful of making quick judgments about someone. Unfortunately, we do this all the time and often without knowing much about the other person. Social media is a haven for quick, and I daresay, very unfair judgments about people. We all do this and we need to stop.
My sixth step is to know when to just let something go, especially with an individual person. We don’t always have to respond to everything, though I understand the difficulty in doing this when it’s a topic we are passionate about. However, there is a fine line between stating a point and having a fruitful discussion and beating a point to death. Most of us have found ourselves in a discussion that just isn’t going anywhere. Ask yourself if it’s worth continuing the discussion? Is it worth risk of losing a relationship just to be right? There is a lot to be said in knowing when to just stop talking about an issue with a particular person. And when you do stop the discussion, please don’t brag that you are taking the high road in stopping the argument or sulk and give the silent treatment to the other person. Rather look at it as the relationship is more important than winning the argument. This also applies to getting into arguments with people you don’t know on social media that often lead to nasty comments, wrong assumptions, and cruel put-downs and labeling. Is it worth it to argue with that person, knowing that there is rarely, if ever, an agreement to be found?
My seventh step to effective listening is to always be respectful. We can disagree and still respect one another. Respect is often conveyed in the language we use.
I saw this quote by Charles M. Blow, a journalist. He said, “One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.” Challenge yourself in 2021 to really listen to understand each other. You don’t have to agree. That’s okay. But at the end of the discussion, if you can say I understand this other person’s point of view, you have accomplished much.