How To Listen To People You Disagree With

Journalism

Early last year, Amanda Ripley had a revelation: she wasn’t a great listener. “It was hugely disturbing, because it's my job,” she says.

Ripley is a journalist who writes for The Atlantic and The Washington Post. She was studying conflict as a way to understand political polarization. Through her research, she realized that one key to understanding – and sometimes even resolving – conflict is whether the parties involved feel heard or not.

Most people aren’t great listeners – including doctors and bosses and all kinds of people whose job requires listening. As Ripley sees it, journalists are conditioned to over-simplify polarizing topics or complex characters so that readers can more easily understand the reporting. But in doing so, journalists flatten incredibly complicated, nuanced topics and leave people more entrenched than ever. Ripley wrote about this revelation in a viral piece last year, Complicating the Narratives.

Now, Ripley, an Emerson Collective Senior Fellow, is working with the Solutions Journalism Network to train journalists on how to conduct better interviews, particularly about polarizing subjects. Ripley’s work is part of a larger movement to bridge political and cultural divides and revive healthy democractic debate in the U.S.

Ripley recently spoke with Patrick D'Arcy, Emerson Collective’s Director of Fellowships and Portfolio Communications, about the broader implications of her research on conflict and the essential, overlooked role of listening in a healthy democracy – and the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Ripley training journalists at the 2018 Solutions Journalism Network Summit in Utah. Credit: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky/Solutions Journalism Network.

Let’s start at a super basic level: what is the role of listening in civil society?

Listening allows people to coexist. People will put up with a lot of difference if they feel heard. People will open up to different ideas and opinions. If you are going to live in a pluralistic society, particularly a democracy like the United States, people need to feel heard or else everything goes to hell, one way or another, because people pull to extremes – they stop listening, they demonize each other, they can't see any shared humanity. Listening is the lubricant of civil society.

People will put up with a lot of difference if they feel heard. People will open up to different ideas and opinions.

Amanda Ripley

It sounds like you’re saying that not all conflict is bad. Why is conflict sometimes good?

If we can't have productive conflict, which you can't have without listening, then you can't make progress as a society. Increasingly, I think a lot of us believe that if we can just shame someone or argue with someone enough, make them feel bad or isolate them, then that will force people to come to our side.

But the opposite is true in the research. When you argue with people, you give them permission to hold more tightly to their beliefs. When people feel understood, they can still disagree but come up with much more creative solutions. When people really feel heard by someone who is good at listening, all these amazing things happen. They become less anxious, they say more interesting things, they become more coherent in what they're saying, less extreme. And, they are more open about the contradictions in their own beliefs.

An “active listening” exercise during an event at which Ripley spoke earlier this year. Credit: North Carolina Humanities Council

Thanksgiving is this week. Every year around this time, I hear people talk about the political arguments they are dreading at Thanksgiving. Why do you think that the “Thanksgiving dinner table” has this place in our cultural consciousness?

It's a reflection of the fact that we are living more and more politically segregated lives. The best way to reduce partisan prejudice is to live among and talk to people who think differently than you do, but that is becoming really rare. Most people do not talk about politics, in particular, with people who disagree with them. People are far less likely to date and marry people from a different political party than they were any time in my lifetime.

Thanksgiving seems to be the one exception. It’s the one time, for many people, where they come face to face with people who disagree with them politically, who get their news from different channels.

The best way to reduce partisan prejudice is to live among and talk to people who think differently than you do, but that is becoming really rare.

Amanda Ripley

Can you share an exercise that anyone can take to these conversations at Thanksgiving?

If you have a relationship with someone at the table, and you know that you disagree on something, I would strongly recommend leaning into the conflict—but doing it carefully.

Spend ten minutes – just ten minutes – really listening to that person, one-on-one. Make eye contact, and ask personal, open-ended questions. Don't ask about the border wall. Instead, ask how their opinions on immigration have changed over the course of their lifetime. Or, what do they wish the “other side” understood about their position that they don't understand now?

Then, try not to judge what they're saying. Every time they say something that seems important to them, stop and gently check if you are understanding them. Rephrase what they said in the most elegant language you can muster, and ask them if that's right. You'll see something happen. Either they'll say, “No, that's not right,” and they'll say something that's more useful to try to explain it. Or they'll say, "Exactly." It's almost always that word that people use: “exactly.” And you can actually see them kind of light up. It's an amazing thing to see because it's so rare that people feel heard. Even if it's about something not that emotional.

In this way, you start to build trust with them. And then you'll find that the next thing they say is more and more interesting. And then hopefully, by the end of that ten minutes, you can then say what you think, and they might actually hear it.

Why do you think politics are so hard for us to talk about?

Part of the reason politics have gotten so combustible, so loaded, is that we're not actually talking about the things we care most about. Instead, we're having a proxy battle, and the conflict seems like it's about the Confederate flag or abortion, when it's really about more than that.

Then, as we get more and more separated from each other, we start getting different information loaded with different symbolism and meaning, and it becomes harder and harder to talk about the thing you're really worried about, like feeling afraid for your kids’ future. So, we stop speaking each other's language, quite literally. When I interview conservatives, they use very different language than when I interview progressives. It's scary because it's really hard to communicate if you don't speak the same language.

An “active listening” exercise during an event at which Ripley spoke earlier this year. Credit: North Carolina Humanities Council

What do you see is the national stakes for the trend towards polarization? What will happen if we don’t get better at listening to each other?

We're going to stagnate and regress, as a country, if we can't find ways to work together. This is like a marriage, and right now, both sides are trying to win the marriage, as negotiator William Ury says. You can't win a marriage. You can destroy it, but we've got kids together. This country has millions of kids together. We've got to find a way to deal with each other, right?