How are they right? A way of listening that can bridge polarization

I’m a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. I’m a trained listener, having spent more decades than I like to think about trying to learn how to hear. It turns out that listening doesn’t come naturally – I’ve been staggered by learning how difficult it really is. Though I’m still working at it, I’d like to say one simple thing about what I’ve learned.

I’ve spent my career working with people who find themselves at the margins – of their families, their community. They get there through some combination of their own doing and the reactions of others. My experience is that people – and groups – who are at the margins always have something important to tell us – and what they have to say may be difficult for us to hear.

One of the ways we don’t listen – and there are many – is by deciding very quickly how someone else is wrong – how they are “not me”. This particular difficulty in listening, in my experience, can contribute to the marginalization of others, be they psychiatric patients, particular individuals, family members, people from another political party, communities or religions.

It is amazingly easy for us to listen to the many ways in which the other person is “wrong” – how they don’t really understand, how they are confused, how they’re lacking information or perspective. This listening position is very gratifying – it confirms that we know and supports the idea that we need to educate the other person, to help them see the truth. But – and this may be obvious to you – one of the things good listening requires is the effort to hear how the other person is “right”. By this, I don’t mean that everything anyone says is right – that would just be a surrender of our own perspectives. What I mean is this: Can we consider the possibility that the person we’re listening to — no matter how difficult or provocative they are being — is trying to say something that might, if we allow it, touch some aspect of our experience, something that we may have in common that we can learn from and deepen our understanding. Can we find a thread in ourselves that allows us to consider something new, potentially recognizable, potentially useful – that we can both join and add to?

I have found this perspective difficult to learn – and even harder to teach. But with effort, this kind of affirmative listening is possible, even when what the other is saying evokes a powerfully negative reaction in us, leading us to feel: “This is not me – and it is completely mistaken!”

Let me give you an example. When Jimmie Carter met with Yasir Arafat and Menachem Begin at Camp David, he was meeting with two former terrorists who hated each other (Begin had been the head of the IRGUN). Carter scrambled to find some link – some way in which they could begin to listen to each other. He failed, until he found something they shared – and he said to them: “You are both people of The Book” – noting the devotion of each faith to the power of their Bibles. This was the entry point for a beginning conversation. So, to underscore the point, I would ask you: How are the Palestinians right? How is the Tea Party right? How are the terrorists saying something we need to hear? Or, even more extremely, how are our family members telling us something important that we need to know? Is it possible to listen in this way without surrendering what we believe in most passionately?

I offer this question for your consideration.

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