In our conversations, whether political, public or private, we seem to be increasingly belligerent, uncivil and unrelenting, determined to crush the opposition rather than listen to the other side.
Could it be that what we fear most is that our positions might change?
We wrap ourselves in our colors, cocoon ourselves in our ideologies and do everything except stick our fingers in our ears. We hear only what we choose and attempt to mute other voices as if holding a universal remote to silence those with whom we disagree. We insist on our right to speak up, but the real danger is that we are only making noise and losing our ability to create meaningful discussions.
What seemed true once might no longer be the truth. Some stories, like mistakes, don’t get better simply because they are repeated. Like laundry, some might need to be changed or replaced.
Listening to somebody else’s ideas is the one way to know whether the story you believe about the world — as well as about yourself and your place in it — remains intact. We all need to examine our beliefs, air them out and let them breathe. Hearing what other people have to say, especially about concepts we regard as foundational, is like opening a window in our minds and in our hearts.
Speaking up is important. Yet to speak up without listening is like banging pots and pans together: Even if it gets you attention, it’s not going to get you respect.
There are three prerequisites for conversation to be meaningful: 1. You have to know what you’re talking about, meaning that you have an original point and are not echoing a worn-out, hand-me-down or pre-fab argument; 2. You respect the people with whom you’re speaking and are authentically willing to treat them courteously even if you disagree with their positions; 3. You have to be both smart and informed enough to listen to what the opposition says while handling your own perspective on the topic with uninterrupted good humor and discernment.
New York Times best-selling author of “Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion,” Jay Heinrichs says that “We lose civility when we argue without a goal. What do you really want: a better country, or to prove the other guy is a jerk?”
An old friend from our early days of writing, Jay is now a powerful advocate for the art and importance of rhetoric. He reminds us that, as St. Augustine counseled, it’s imperative that we “hear the other side.” Explains Jay, “Augustine didn’t say that because he was a saint; he said it because it’s the single best way to win people over.”
It’s not only to win people over that we need to exchange stories — although that might be the most fun part — but it’s to remind ourselves of why our stories matter in the first place.
Amy Dickinson, the columnist we know as “Ask Amy” and author of the brilliant new memoir “Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things,” says: “It is vital that we continue to talk, and to listen to one another, as we tell our stories. This feeling of connectedness underscores our humanity.” Amy continues, “None of us is alone, as long as we are brave and generous enough to hold onto each other.”
In my youth, I lashed myself down to certain ways of thinking, the way sailors would tie themselves to the mast in a storm, for fear of being moved from the one spot considered safe. Terrified of change, miserable at the possibility of the slightest disruption, I put myself more in harm’s way with my inflexibility than any shift in circumstances would have done. Only by listening to other people’s stories about how they navigated paths to safe ground did I finally free myself from what held me back — and held me down.
Listening carefully, especially to what we suspect we don’t want to hear, or even to the sides of arguments we’ve shrugged off, is one of the most courageous actions we can take. Paying attention to the other side might put us through the wringer but only rarely is it a mistake.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.