I find I keep having the same conversation with people.  It’s a conversation about the great divide in the United States, the gulf between right and left, the seeming impossibility of agreeing about anything important.  We all see the problem, but we’ve done nothing about.

Expressing frustration, almost desperation with the divide, a friend recently wrote to me:  “Persuading right-leaning voters is damn tough. In the 2020 election, 70 million voters in the US voted for Trump.  That is a lot of people [to persuade].  How does one persuade the bulk of those that they are following a path that ultimately leads to a diminishment of personal freedom, wealth, and even health?”

Rather intemperately (I hope he’s still talking to me), I wrote back:  “You’re no different than the conservatives.  The focus of your email is on what’s wrong with those other people.  Exactly what the conservatives say [about you].

“The problem often is with the idealogue himself, not the other guy.  You should be listening to responsible conservatives, not worrying about how to change their minds.  They should be listening to you.”

I wasn’t that impressed when I first read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey thirty year ago, but I find I keep coming back to the lessons Covey teaches:  First learn to be an independent person – that’s learning to be an adult.  Then learn to be interdependent – that’s being a responsible adult.    Habit 5 is one of the interdependent habits:  Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.  Conservatives have a lot of important things to say.  Liberals have a lot of important things to say.  Stop worrying about what you want to say to them; and start working at understanding what they’re saying to you.

The usual response from both conservatives and liberals is “I already know what they’re going to say.”   In other words, “I don’t want to listen, I just want to talk.”

I’d suggest spending more time trying to understand what they’re saying and where you can find common ground with that.  After that, maybe they’ll be willing to listen to you.  That’s where the middle ground is.

A few weeks ago I was driving through rural New York State with a friend who is a liberal, maybe ultra-liberal, urban Democrat.  Generalizing, she asked, “Why would these people vote for Trump?”  She meant “Why would these relatively poor, underserved people stuck in these small towns vote for Trump?”

I said, “These people like their lives.   Life proceeds at a nice, comfortable pace, there’s food on the table, families stay together, and the children don’t move too far from home.  They get healthcare when they need it, maybe not the same quality as in the large cities, but it’s professional health care informed by scientific medical knowledge available everywhere.  They don’t have a lot of people of color here; they aren’t patient with what seem to them to be demands for change when they see no need for change.  They don’t need or want their government to do much for them, including making them wealthier, and they don’t want their government giving anything to anyone else, either.  They don’t want their government telling them what they can do and can’t do.  Their parents gave them their first gun when they were ten, and having a gun is a part of rural life.  They don’t want their government taking their guns away.”

She might not have been willing to listen to one of “those people,” but she listened to me.  She was silent.  Actually, I kind of surprised myself.  I could understand all of that, I could see why “those people” might prefer Trump’s policies, and even Trump’s in-your-face attitude, to Biden’s.  That doesn’t mean I agree with all of that, but I can understand it.  Those aren’t the rantings of some maniacal demon that must be stopped at all cost.  In fact, imbedded in those thoughts are core American values – independence, self-reliance, home, family.

You know those 70 million people who voted for the other guy, the 70 million you simply can’t understand what they could be thinking?   Well, those people don’t all live in some other part of the country.  They live in your town, they work in your office or your shop or your restaurant.  Their kids go to school with your kids.  They aren’t the devil, and they aren’t your enemy.  They are your neighbors and your friends.  Their lives are much like yours, and they want the same things for themselves and their families as you do for yours.  They like the same food, the same movies, the same sports.  They are Americans, just like you.

Listen to those people.  Seek first to understand.  Don’t tell them what’s wrong with what they’re saying; they care deeply about what they are saying, just as you care about what you believe.  Don’t think about what you want to say when it’s your turn.  Just listen.  Ask them to tell you what they want for the country, what they believe; ask them not to tell you what’s wrong with your viewpoint.  Listen and ask questions to be sure you understand what they’re saying.  Find the things you agree with.  Find the common ground.  It’s there.  Then (and “then” may be another conversation, even another day), ask them to listen.  Ask them not to argue with you, ask them simply to seek to understand what you’re saying.

Wouldn’t you think that one Republican Senator and one Democratic Senator could talk like that, undestand what is important to each, and find some common ground?  One Republican Congressman and one Democratic Congressman?

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.  Can’t we start there?  You and I?

9 Replies to “IT’S TIME TO LISTEN”

  1. Good stuff Mark. We’ve had liberal and conservative politics for decades without suffering the present ill of being unable to discuss politics at many family dinners. Or with certain friends. The political pendulum swings, as it always has. Fine. There are no perfect answers re health care, immigration, gun control, etc. But Trump dialed up the volume and raised the art of demonizing the opponents to a very high level. Social media plays a role as well, but when you have the person who’s supposed to be leading us doing the dividing (brilliantly), things get toxic very quickly. He actively cultivated “haters.” I am hopeful that we can now tone the volume down and discuss the issues safely. And let’s not confuse the healthy debate across the political spectrum with the poisonous style Trump perfected.

    • FAIL! Pardon me for being intemperate, but if you can’t write a paragraph about the problem without blaming it on the other guy, then you’re every bit as much the problem.

      Reread my essay. After you’ve reread it, if your reaction is, “Yes, but Trump really IS the problem,” then you will continue to be part of the problem. Political dialog has to start with listening, not with declaring the other side wrong.

      • People have commented to me about the harshness of my response to Paul. I knew it was harsh when I responded, and I should have known better.

        I’ve since apologized to Paul and as I knew we would, we’ve had a good offline discussion of the issues.

        • For the record, I didn’t think Mark’s response to me was harsh. I’ve known Mark for 30+ years, and I’ve always enjoyed having a spirited conversation with him. And I appreciate the ways in which his essays make me think about the issues. We can have a civil discourse without needing to agree about everything.

  2. I guess I’m going to “continue to be part of the problem.”
    We’ve had conservative presidents in the past (and I’ve even voted for them!) who are not divisive, pathological liars, and who care more about the good of the country than themselves. Maybe Trump is not THE problem, but he is A problem. He’s more concerned with his loss of power and spotlight than the thousands of Americans who have died and are going to die during this pandemic. Thank goodness that there are still Republicans with the moral fiber to stand up to his attacks on the foundation of our democratic republic. Many of the conservatives that support Trump that I’ve spoken with and read state that they support Trump’s policies, but don’t approve of his behavior. Well, you can have someone who promotes that agenda who is not morally and ethically bankrupt. Character counts. So I’ll continue to listen and try to understand, but I also continue to find the support of this con-man to be inexplicable.

    • What you’ve just said to every Trump supporter is “I disagree with you, but I will continue to listen.”

      My point is that you’re describing a conversation that is dead on arrival. That IS part of the problem.

      We all seem to have gotten into a mode where we find it necessary always to declare categorically that the other guy is wrong. The reflexive Biden bashing we’re getting from conservatives is another example. It’s a bad way to generate productive political dialog.

      The fact is that there are millions of Trump voters and millions of Biden voters who can agree on plenty of things. They can’t get to that agreement when the conversation starts with “your guy is a problem.”

      • Mark:
        I’m not clear on why you think disagreement is a conversation killer if one is still listen to hear what the other party has to say. Actually, that’s what we’re doing right now. (BTW, you just told me I’m wrong, so is this conversation dead? lol!)
        I think its important to listen to those with whom we disagree, and it would be dishonest if we did not let them know our own position.

        • Paul –

          There’s nothing wrong with disagreement.

          The whole point of what I wrote is about listening with an open mind and resisting the urge to declare your position. When you start the conversation with “Trump’s a problem, here’s why; now I’ll listen,” you start by speaking rather than listening and you’re declaring your mind closed before you listen. The point is that by listening with an open mind, you can look for common ground.

          When you start by drawing lines in the sand, your conversation partner is inclined to respond by drawing lines, too. Rather than finding common ground, conversations like that tend simply to declare a demilitarized zone.

          Once again, for the record, I’m not defending Trump.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *