Many of us have probably heard the recent claim that America may be more divided today than it’s been at any point since the Civil War. This is largely based on data from recent Pew surveys around our political polarization and party affiliations.
All of us likely feel that political division when we read or watch the news and struggle to find sources of information that aren’t blatantly biased in favor of the “left” or “right.” Or when we unfollow friends or family members on Facebook after they post something that offends us politically (or personally). We may even avoid breeching large swaths of topics in conversations with strangers or those that are outside of our in-group for fear of offending them.
I think that one of the reasons we are so divided today, and one of the reasons it can be so painful to have a conversation with someone you perceive as different from you, is that most of us are really bad at listening.
Empathy is the ability to imagine and, in some cases, share the feelings of others. I believe that true understanding and empathy can only be achieved through intentionally listening to others.
Why is it so hard for us to listen to other people?
Our brains, partly.
- We get distracted. We can talk at 225 wpm but can listen at up to 500 wpm. Our minds fill in the 275 words. It takes real effort and energy to pay attention.
- Recent studies have shown that when we’re on the internet, our attention spans are shorter than that of a goldfish.
- Then there’s confirmation bias, which is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
We’d rather talk.
- We are always way more interesting to ourselves than we are to other people.
- Smart people, which all of you are, are especially bad at having conversations because they know a lot, and tend to go into conversations with the intent to educate others, not to listen—but real conversations, and true listening, takes a lot of emotional intelligence. Author Celeste Headlee says that smart people are bad at conversing because they “bring logic to an emotion fight.”
Why should I listen?
- People are really interesting, even if you don’t agree with them.
- When we really listen to others, we are learning much more than we would have if we prejudged them and assumed they were too different from us.
- You are enriching yourself.
To build relationships.
- When we really listen to each other, tension dissipates, and true understanding begins.
- We can retain our values, beliefs, and differences without shunning one another.
- Listening is an effective way of building bridges between communities.
- People just want to be heard, and if you listen to them, it can build rock solid loyalty.
- Listening to others and understanding where they are coming from through a balanced conversation can help you build empathy toward other human beings.
- Recent studies have shown a decline in empathy.
- As humans, we are more likely to feel more empathy for our own in-group, and we are less likely to feel empathy for people of other races, nationalities, or creeds.
- As we climb the social ladder and accumulate more wealth and power, our ability to empathize often shrinks. In fact, less affluent individuals are significantly more likely to be more compassionate than those who are better off. So having empathy and retaining the ability to empathize takes effort and practice.
And when you learn from other people, build relationships with them, and learn to empathize with those who are radically different from you, incredibly powerful things can be accomplished.
This is Jazz Musician Daryl Davis:
And this is Daryl with one of his close friends:
Over the last 30 years or so, Daryl has been befriending members of white supremacy groups. At least 200 KKK members have removed themselves from the hate group as a result of these friendships. He has been credited with single handedly dismantling the KKK in his home state of Maryland.
Many say that what Daryl is doing is “converting” members of the KKK. But he denies this.
Daryl never approached anyone with the intention of converting them. What Daryl did was choose to have conversations instead of shunning people.
He wasn’t threatened by the fact that they probably hated him without reason—he knew that the best chance he had to dissipate that hate is to increase mutual understanding through true listening, which is required in any real conversation. The more both parties listened to one another, the more they understood each other, and the fear and hate eventually disappeared in many cases.
This is a super intense example. Obviously, ending racism and hate crime is the best case outcome of listening and empathy, but there are plenty of applications that are lower stakes and closer to home for many of us.
We can use improved listening skills in our personal life to improve our relationships with family members and friends that have strong opinions that differ from our own—and we can also use it here at Workshop.
What can listening do at an agency or similar workplace?
Listening can build client loyalty. Our clients can tell when we’re really listening to them. If they know they’re heard and understood, they will value us more and advocate for us internally.
Listening improves the work we do for our clients. When we have more conversations with clients, we can build strategies around a true understanding of their business and internal goals—which will perform better.
Listening will make for more engaged and invested employees. Workshop Digital recently launched a new performance management process that is super individualized and makes sure that employees have an opportunity to be heard, feel valued, and create a growth plan based on where they really want to go.
Listening can help us build an inclusive and diverse community of employees. We can attract and retain talent from across the spectrum of values and beliefs and ensure that everyone feels comfortable and listened to in our office (even if they don’t belong to the digital marketing agency in-group that is liberal, urban Millennial).
You’ve heard a lot of crappy advice on how to listen: look the person in the eye, think of interesting topics in advance, nod and smile to show you’re paying attention, repeat back what you heard, and so on. Don’t learn to show you’re listening—learn to listen.
- Try not to enter a conversation with talking points, or with the intent to change someone’s mind. That is the death of conversation.
- Don’t make assumptions about what the person is going to say. Respond to what you hear, not what you think you will hear, and respond only after listening. Try not to stop listening because you’ve thought of a clever reply. That’s not a conversation. That’s two people going back and forth making unrelated statements. Thoughts will come and go, let them come and go.
- Try to enter every conversation with the expectation that you have something to learn.
- Famed therapist M. Scott Peck said: “True listening requires a setting aside of oneself.”
- If you don’t know, say you don’t know.
- Listen as much as you talk.
- It’s not about you: you don’t need to make conversations an opportunity to prove how amazing you are or how much you’ve suffered. Conversations are not a promotional opportunity.
- Don’t repeat yourself: usually we have a point to make so we just rephrase it over and over, but they probably heard you the first time around.
- Don’t be half in it: if you want to leave the conversation, leave the conversation.
This blog post was heavily inspired by the following resources: