Talking Across the Divide: The Listening Way

Yesterday, I noticed a Facebook exchange on a friends page about political events in the United States. It featured folks trying to communicate, but they were clearly on opposite sides of political fences. Most stated the insulting comments that are flying around from each side. A few, however, tried even harder to see what might cause someone to change sides. No progress was made. It made me flash back to a technique I had used in the past to talk to people with strong opposing positions. The Listening Way is based on, you guessed it, listening. I found one possible way to reach people was letting them talk, first.

There is a basic flaw in how we argue with our friends and family. We seem to trust that the beliefs of others can be modified by firm assertive statements and continuing the discussion with no flexibility and little listening to the other person. Society is suffering from political turmoil, conflict, and disagreement. Much of the conflict in the world results from an inability of people with different opinions to find common ground. But, I want to know how belief change can occur between two people with different opinions. My hope is that if people can agree and share worldviews, the result will be less conflict and violence.

People are constantly faced with the frustration of not getting along with family, friends, and strangers. We have not learned to discuss our differences in constructive ways. Too many times we fall into the same destructive patterns when trying to talk to people. We have difficulties in communicating about areas of disagreement and deescalating arguments. While I believe we should talk about big policy disagreements, we have a hard time handling those topics. When we try to talk about issues we disagree about we sometimes come up against different core values and beliefs. Folks have their self identities interlocked with other people, so challenging one core belief can be traumatic and threaten to unravel their whole world-view.

Sonja K. Foss talked about how each individual has a conception of the world and through communication shares aspects of their personal world. How much a person’s worldview is shared with others will be one factor in how much a person will change her opinion in response to attempted belief modification. In addition, how a person understands another person’s intention, in communication can affect each arguer’s ability to change opinions. This all boils down to the obvious truth that individuals resist change. When pressured to change, we attempt to maintain our structure of self. Resistance to belief changes is part psychological and part communication tactics.

As we all see, it is difficult to persuade people, as there are all sorts of preconceptions and prejudices, and folks ignore contradictory information when those preconceptions are challenged. This article suggests that a way to achieve belief modification is through listening. Listening can take the forms of questioning, empathizing, and non-verbal communications. We can build a connection with the individual we are communicating with. If we understand the person, perhaps we can reach them. Every person is complex and different. Part of communicating is building a bridge to the person we are talking with. Building bridges between people is a way of effecting political relations and talk outcomes. This approach seeks to increase our collective intelligence and political points of unity. As we work together our understanding of the problem continues to evolve, and we can communicate better.

Andrew D. Wolvin gave an overview of active listening that emphasizes the processes involved in the listening act. Some of the important processes to remember when listening are, create space, identify emotion, sidestep one’s own fear and anger, remember focus, show respect, honor their identity — who they are, find out what needs to be communicated, and ask questions to lower the tension and build rapport. The main goal of the interaction is to build rapport so that your communication partner can hear what you are saying. By listening you are understanding them better and building rapport. Finally, they may be ready to listen to you.

I will outline this approach to help end the discouragement caused by the antagonism and hostility surrounding political debate. In this polarized climate, it is often difficult to have a meaningful discussion with those whose opinions differ from our own. The goal of this approach is to change the climate of debate, to reintroduce reason, responsibility, and respect for all into the process of advocacy across the cultural and political divide. We seek respectful dialogue between those who disagree on divisive issues because we are confident that this will result in broad support for well-crafted policies that are essential to human dignity and a free society. I hope this approach can be used to build the cultural change needed to create a just, livable, sustainable world.

The Listening Way is used one-on-one. Not for public debates or group discussions. Occasionally, we will be talking to someone who is skeptical about or explicitly hostile to values in which we believe. When we want to engage this partner and see if we can open his or her mind to our ideas, we need a powerful tool. That is what is offered here, a method to advocate for our values through one-on-one dialogue that begins by listening to other people’s points of view and empathizing with their fears. If more people around the country engage in this kind of advocacy, our society may be transformed into one ready to embrace humane social policies at home. Those of us using this method seek to make our society genuinely strong, just, and healthy. We endorse public policies rooted in fundamental values that recognize and celebrate the humanity of all. We believe that a society must embrace these values in order to guarantee the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all its members.

In pursuing The Listening Way, we understand that our moral beliefs can coexist with another person’s valid concerns about our society’s well-being. We must have the courage to submit our beliefs to a thorough examination, the humility to know that we may at times be wrong, and the faith that if reason and responsibility can prevail, we will pass a healthy society on to our children. This tool is easily understood and tested.

The Listening Way boils down to three rules:

1. Don’t proclaim a position at the beginning of the conversation. Instead, start by asking a question and listening to the answer.

2. Don’t proclaim an intention of converting your partner to your position. Better yet, go into the discussion with the intention of having a “learning conversation” through which both parties may be enlightened.

3. Don’t express your feelings and ideas until you’ve gotten your partner to express his or her feelings and ideas, uninterrupted, and in full detail.

Even if — and maybe especially if — you’ve earned a prior reputation as already having a strong stand on the issues that seem to cancel Rule 1, a vigorous application of Rule 3 will still open a partner to respect our values.) The one additional element is having command of a set of well- researched responses. This command will give us the confidence not to respond prematurely but to stick to that key mind-opening tactic (Rule 3) of holding off until our partner gets all his or her radically different ideas out on the table.

As we begin to apply the Listening Way, we need to ask ourselves: What is the goal of our advocacy? Are we trying to persuade others to take a particular position on an issue or piece of legislation? Are we advocating for a set of values or a worldview? Are we advocates on behalf of a group of people or a community?

If our goal is to shift the political paradigm to reflect values of human dignity and equality of opportunity, then we can appreciate the value in several different possible outcomes of a conversation with a partner. At one level, it is satisfying if we “win the day” and persuade our partner to agree with us. However, it may more effective in some cases to plant seeds that can result immediately or eventually in significant shifts in our partner’s position. Finally, even if the person is unmoved, by listening carefully, we can learn things that will strengthen our own analyses and make us better advocates in the future.

Preparing for a Listening Way Encounter Rule 1 directs us to ask a question — preferably an open-ended question that is not too loaded — and then to listen. The news reporter’s paradigm offers one approach to organizing our listening: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And how?

Who is our partner? We want to bring reason and responsibility back to our political culture. Is it possible that this person shares that sensibility? What feelings or life experiences shape those whose worldviews differ from ours? We all filter our observations of the world through models and assumptions about the world. If we don’t force ourselves to be aware of our assumptions and examine them, we can create such powerful filters that we ONLY take in what confirms our worldview. Some people may be psychologically numbed and keeping a distance from unpleasant things in the world they feel powerless to change — poverty, discrimination, brutality in the criminal justice system, the inequality of educational opportunities, lack of access to health care.

Some people may see progressive or humanitarian values as threats to their own place in the world. Ideas that challenge long-held assumptions may be equated with moral breakdown. People — even those who appear well off — may be insecure about their future and may be terrified at the thought of social chaos. In a polarized political environment, it is easy to forget that most people hold a complex and not entirely consistent set of opinions. So some people may adopt a conservative position on some issues and very progressive stands on others. Listening carefully to WHO is standing before us can lead to a fruitful encounter with any partner.

What needs to be communicated to a partner will depend on why he or she questions progressive values. Ideally, each of us will continually collect information and critically examine the policies we believe to be consistent with our values. It is good to have well- researched facts and analysis with experts’ answers to the most common objections a partner is likely to raise. However, we may encounter objections we cannot immediately answer. It is fine to use that as an opportunity to engage our partner in a joint exploration of the issue or just say that we don’t know the answer but will definitely want to research it. Our partner will appreciate our willingness to examine our own beliefs and assumptions.

When and Where. Just when and where we might “talk values” with a partner makes a long list. Some of us will create opportunities by going out ringing doorbells from house to house in neighborhood-organizing projects. But this kind of work is too confrontational for many. Most times the approach can be casual, almost accidental. Good opportunities are summer campgrounds, theater lines, taxicabs, bus benches, airline terminals, planes, doctors’ waiting rooms, the back fence where we exchange neighborhood news, or the kitchen table when a friend drops in for coffee. Whenever and wherever we find a potential partner with the time and willingness to talk: that’s the answer.

We look for a clear space — from 10 to 60 minutes or more — either in one period or in brief continuing conversations over several days. Otherwise, the Listening Way might never get around to the payoffs — although even in a brief exchange an important seed may be planted. With more time both parties can explore and respond to objections. There may even be time for the relaxed discussion of the pros and cons that can lead joint learning and transformed attitude.

The Listening Way is a systematic and tightly disciplined adherence to the Golden Rule: Treating others as we’d like them to treat us. It is putting others first. Certainly, we are calculated about it; but the calculation is intended to make the world a better place; it is a calculation akin to love. And it is important that our emotions in this one-to-one approach should — as much as possible — reflect that. Our warmth and friendliness must be unmistakable. But don’t fake it. Faking can sour our partner, and us also.

Bringing the talk around from, say, sports or movies, to the need for change can be by any route we wish. But when turning the conversation to a given set of values, remain mindful of rules 1 and 2. We engage our partner through noncommittal inquiry as to his or her feelings on the subject. Our partner is likely to reply with one of the standard objections. Be prepared to respond — but not immediately. (Or, having accumulated experience and improved our skill, we may feel able to create a spontaneous response appropriate to the situation.) To reply immediately, without having gotten our partner to express his or her ideas and feelings first, will totally negate The Listening Way.

Implementing the rules can follow from reviewing the rules and looking at how to implement them right now.

  1. Don’t proclaim a position at the beginning of the conversation. Instead, start by asking a question and listening to the answer.
  2. Don’t proclaim an intention of converting your partner to your position. Better yet, go into the discussion with the intention of having a “learning conversation” through which both parties may be enlightened.
  3. Don’t express your feelings and ideas until you’ve gotten your partner to express his or her feelings and ideas, uninterrupted, and in full detail.

Example Discussion

To see how this discipline works in practice let’s look at an example from one of the controversies we face:

Your partner says, “The economy is better thanks to the administration’s policies.”

Respond by asking your partner if he would explain which policies they feel have helped make the economy better.

Let’s say he or she points to the so-called tax cuts/raises.

You then ask how the tax cuts/raises have helped the economy.

He or she responds that the tax cuts/raises have stimulated business.

Ask your partner to explain how the tax cuts/raises have done this.

He or she says they have put more money into people’s pockets.

What could you ask him or her then?

From these questions or others like them, you can wedge your way into your partner’s thinking by referring to his or her values, such as the need for money to maintain national security and a strong infrastructure. Agree with him or her on the points on which you genuinely agree.

Don’t talk about your own different opinions until your partner indicates with body language, voice or by asking you questions. Once this moment arrives, affirm your partner’s worth as a person by repeating the points on which you agree. Then express your ideas.

Here are some practical phrases that you might find useful:

“What is it that… …. ?”

“What do you mean when you say… …. ?” (Reach deeper elements of reality.)

“I imagine that you… …”

“It must feel quite… … … if… … …..”

“Can you imagine what it must be like for the others?”

“How would you feel in their situation?”

“I can relate to it when you say… ..” (Helps to stay warm and friendly.

“I am worried about terrorism, too.” (Agree with what you can

Rule 2. genuinely agree:

“We are all in the same boat.”

“Is this always true, or what might be exceptions?”

“What kind of effect would this have on people like you and me?”

“Could you please repeat/clarify that?”

PLUS: Repeat what you heard: “So, let me see if I understand you. You are saying that … … .”

Considerations when it’s our turn to respond. Rule 3 directs us to wait until our partner has had time to be completely heard. There is this proviso: We may need to answer the partner’s initial objection immediately, if he or she absolutely insists — but ONLY if he or she insists. If possible try to avoid doing so by explaining that you’d first like to hear ALL the objections or concerns and that then you may be able to summarize what you understand the experts’ answers to be from your research. Then the two of you can look at the pros and cons objectively, taking the hardest issue first.

In order to keep the objections coming, agree to whatever you can. “I’m worried about terrorism, too.” Whenever you cannot agree, say something noncommittal but friendly. “Yes, I’ve heard others say that, too.” Another approach is to use active listening techniques — summarize what you think you’ve heard. “I just want to make sure I understand your point. What I heard you say is …..” Your goal is to draw them out and hope that you can jointly arrive at agreement on at least some values of importance.

Often we may not agree on a fact or an action, but we may find common emotional ground. For example, we may discover that we both care deeply about the need for all children to have a loving home and educational opportunities. Such common ground on an emotional level is another bridge between us. Don’t talk about your own different opinions until your partner indicates with body language, voice or by asking you questions. Once this moment arrives, affirm your partner’s worth as a person by repeating the points on which you agree. Then express your ideas.

Create space for productive dialogue. The goal is to set up values that could potentially divide us, not as something that stands between the two of us to be argued about, but as something “out there” that different groups in our society are arguing about. Ideally, the two of us, are not debaters as much as two friendly observers, standing side by side, surveying the scene in search of an answer. This is how we create “space” for our conversation. We avoid the pressures of confrontation, and assure there can be room for eventual agreement.

There are problems of emotion. “Space” is an ideal that is not always achievable. The trouble is that the objections from our partner may stem from fear and anger, and may be expressed so strongly that they trigger the same in us. We may experience:

- Fear of not having things under control

- Fear of failing to find adequate rejoinders

- Fear of looking the fool

- Anger at the partner’s close-mindedness

- Anger at the radical Right’s or Left’s propaganda

- Anger at ourselves for getting into this spot

We’ll deal with our partner’s emotions also, but it’s our own that we have to deal with first. We must sidestep fear and anger. Success in developing a strategy that will carry us through angry tirades with unshakable composure and friendliness is the absolute first priority. Advocacy has to be pleasant, or few of us will try it very often.

And right here we’ll say it loud and clear: Some of those we talk to will turn out not to be just partners but fanatical opponents, whose tirades nobody, not even a saint, could ever handle with equanimity. We must simply leave those people alone and not feel guilty about it. We must cut our losses immediately and move on to someone else. It’s the only cost-effective way of handling it.

At the same time, we don’t want to be too hasty about labeling. Sometimes people who show great emotion in favor of, say, the war on Iraq, can become just as emotional in opposing the war, if they can be convinced of the facts. So if we have an effective strategy for presenting those facts, i.e., the Listening Way, we can test everyone, at least briefly, to see if we can find (or bring out) some sign of open-mindedness. Ordinarily, we might take a beating in the process, but part of the strategy is not to take the punches ourselves but to duck and sidestep so as to let them fall on progressive experts, who can “take it.”

Here are some tips for using the Listening Way. Stay focused on the ultimate goals. It is important to stay on target without being side-tracked. Regardless of the direction of any given conversation, we need to keep in mind our goal. We wish to change the political and moral climate to one that embraces reason, responsibility, and respect for all humanity.

We are seeking a reasoned, enlightening discussion of issues because we are confident that this will shift the thinking of many who are now skeptical or wavering in their support for policies that we see as essential to human dignity and a free society. We also know that sometimes we will approach a person who simply cannot be reached. In such a situation, we don’t let them go away angry, but move on quickly by politely extricating ourselves from the conversation, thanking them for their time, and thanking them for expressing themselves.

If the person opens up to the ideas we have presented, then we ask them to commit to joining the cause by participating in some kind of action. In order to do so, we may need to help them break down one of a number of barriers. Some people will respond reflexively that, “all politics and politicians are the same,” or “what’s the use of getting involved, it won’t make a difference no matter what.” We need to go back to the basics of The Listening Way: Avoid making them feel wrong. Slowly give them the facts that allow them to arrive at a new insight, and give them the space to come to their own conclusions.

Here are tips for engaging with difficult partners. (Howard Roth suggested these):

a. Make sure the person is relaxed and feels comfortable in your presence. Be sincerely interested in the person. See the human being beneath the surface. Create the bond that says, “In the struggles of life, we are all in the same boat.”

b. When facing angry assertions, don’t counter them at once. Ask the person to illustrate what he or she is saying with examples. In having to think of examples, the mind shifts from pure emotionality to thought and rationality. This is how a common ground can be reached.

c. Diffuse outrageously angry attacks by questions such as “Is this always true?” If the person says yes, then ask, “Isn’t it true that every rule has an exception? Isn’t it often the exception that proves the rule? What is the exception here?” Again, the angry attacker is forced to return to rational thought, and the negative emotion loses its grip.

d. Sometimes you are confronted with “facts” that you know are not true, that the person defends with all his or her might. There are several ways to deal with a situation of this sort. Here are some questions that reach beyond emotionality:

“Are you absolutely sure of these facts?”

“Where can we find solid documentation?”

“Is there more to this story? Can you tell me the whole story?”

Or, joining hands as scientific enquirers,

“I’ve heard something very different from what seemed to be

reliable sources. How can we check this out?”

Be sure to listen for insecurity in your partner’s voice. Listen for gaps in logic. When you detect a logical gap, ask more and more questions until the inconsistencies and contradictions become obvious. “How exactly will that work?” or “What kind of effect will that have on you and me?”

Sometimes all you will hear is a repetition of slogans taken from talk show pundits. Step out of the frame and ask, “Doesn’t that talk master sometimes say anything just to be outrageous or exaggerate a point? Does he/she ever say things you’re not sure about, or you just don’t believe?”

If there is an angry defense of that talk show master, don’t yield to the temptation to engage in a heated argument. Instead, ask “Could you please repeat that? Could you please clarify that?” Practice looking past rhetoric and emotions to see what’s underneath.

So, the next time you have a disagreement with someone about the President, remember that your partner is invested in a set of beliefs that aligns her with a group of people. Undermining one of those beliefs can threaten the entire structure of self. Instead, use an approach that will allow your partner to relax and be less fearful. I have used these methods, and know others who have also. It requires time and space. It can take hours before your partner feels comfortable enough to ask you what you think, and means it. Next time you have a difficult conversation, give a thought to the Listening Way.

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There are teaching resources at:

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Writer, organizer, political activist.