My high-school English teacher introduced me to the concept of Active Listening. The basic premise of Active Listening is that “listening” means much more than just passively letting someone talk, thinking all the while about what you’ll say next. Really listening requires participation: eye contact, asking occasional questions, and most of all–hardest of all–keeping an open mind.
We’re not living in a culture that promotes really listening to one another. Tune into a political “talking heads” show if you doubt me. Pundits, politicians, pontificators and pinheads alike gather around a table to discuss the hot-button issues of the day. The guests constantly interrupt one another and punctuate their barbs with derisive snickers. The fever pitch of this ideological cockfight escalates, culminating not in a resolution but in a commercial break.
From The McLaughlin Group to Jerry Springer, the message seems to be: If someone disagrees with you, just yell more! Maybe if your eyes bug out of your head and your consonants are punctuated with a faint spray of saliva, you’ll convince your opponent of your intellectual superiority! And if talking louder doesn’t work, just insult them!
This unwillingness to really listen to others isn’t restricted to TV, either. From the New York Times’ online Op-Ed section to Facebook status updates, we seem unable to read or express opposing viewpoints without name-calling, finger-pointing, AND LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS AND HISTRIONIC PUNCTUATION!!!!!!!!
Now, I’m not naive: I know that a rational, nuanced discussion doesn’t garner TV ratings or sell newspapers. But, really, what’s to be gained by getting so riled up? A popped blood vessel? Perhaps a broken CAPS LOCK key?
What if we choose to believe that someone who disagrees with us is not necessarily an idiot? How much do you suppose we can learn from people who think just as deeply as we do about provocative topics, yet arrive at an entirely different conclusion? Me, I’m with Oliver Wendell Holmes:
It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.