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How to listen when you don’t agree

women talking in an office
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

What do you do when someone voices an opinion that opposes your own? It’s so easy to argue. We see daily examples of this in the news. But the problems we are facing in this world are complex and multi-faceted. One-sided solutions aren’t going to get us where we need to go. It’s going to take looking at the issues from all sides. And that means listening to viewpoints we disagree with. How do we do that without coming to conflict? In our current public discourse, examples may be hard to find, but they’re there.

In her TEDTalk on growing up in — and leaving — the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps-Roper describes what happened when she encountered opposing views on Twitter. There, she found people who challenged her on the church’s hardline positions. These conversations eventually changed her mind about the church and about the direction of her own life. What’s so illuminating, though, is the approach her Twitter contacts took when encountering differing opinions:

  • Assume good intent. We all believe we are doing the right thing. And we’ve come to our point of view through a lifetime of experience. What is the other person’s story? What is the good this person is trying to achieve in the world?

  • Ask questions. It’s so easy to think I already know what someone’s position is, but do I really? Asking questions opens doors. It softens the interaction and provides an opening for the other person to ask questions too. It puts both people in a learning mode.

  • Stay calm. Megan Phelps-Roper describes how her new Twitter contacts responded when the conversation got hard and heated. They would step back, lighten the mood, or change the subject. There was an understanding they would come back to the issue, but only after both sides cooled down.

  • Make your case. Communication goes both ways and just listening is not enough. You also need to state your own view, clearly and fairly. But notice how this is the last step — after an atmosphere of listening has been established between both parties.

Another example of how to listen to different viewpoints came from an unexpected source. In Washington D.C. a handful of Black Lives Matter protesters showed up at a Trump rally. What happened next was truly extraordinary. Tommy Gunn, leader of the rally, decided to demonstrate what democracy is all about and offered the Black Lives Matter folks two minutes on their stage. Hawk Newsome, President of Black Lives Matter New York spoke and the crowd responded. Some of his points they agreed with, others they did not. The crowd spoke back and Newsome listened. He agreed with some of their concerns and offered an expanded view. In the end, both sides discovered they had more in common than they realized.

Listening is vital to finding solutions, finding common ground, finding our way forward. What’s your experience with hearing and understanding a viewpoint you disagree with? What did it take to be able to listen? What did you learn?

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