Human connections, political divides

November 5, 2012 10 Comments

I don’t usually find listening to public radio overly stressful, but this weekend’s edition of This American Life had me churning. The episode Red State Blue State featured a series of stories of relationships among friends, family members, neighbors and more that were damaged or severed over political affiliations and whom they intended to vote for. In a country where most people live in communities that are largely blue or red, people with minority political views in their community need increasing courage to speak their convictions, or even, sometimes just to live their lives. I found the story of a pair of sisters especially heartbreaking.

At one point, the sisters’ breakdown was so severe they were not speaking. They agreed to talk with Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess, authors of You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong), a book of advice for “how liberals and conservatives can have more productive conversations.” Turns out one of the sisters backed out.

Their advice to the other sister? Listen for understanding – try to learn why the person thinks and feels as they do – without trying to change the other person’s mind.

Sounds simple enough, but I think it is one of the hardest things to do in life! It’s fundamentally a spiritual journey, an exercise in humility and compassion, an expression of sacrificial love. In moments like these, I have to remind myself that I should seek first to understand, then [maybe, possibly, but not necessarily] to be understood [at some later date, if at all]. Sometimes my desire to correct and inform is complicated by defensiveness and a desire not to be judged—the need to demonstrate that I am, in fact, a thinking person, even if I disagree with the other person. Like many difficult conversations, I find this easier at work than at home! Social distance creates opportunities to catch myself much more easily.

What helps you to listen authentically with a desire to understand the other person’s view? What helps you to let go of the urge to correct or persuade? And, what helps you to have peace with a person whose views you cannot abide?



  • Gibran says:

    Thanks for this heartfelt reflection Cynthia. Developmental models point to a pattern in the evolution of consciousness. A sequential move from I hold the truth (ego), to we hold the truth and you all should die (ethno), to I guess there is such a thing as another perspective – how do I change it to mine, and finally to the idea that we all hold a portion of an ineffable truth and that each is inherently valid, not a truth I seek to understand just so I can change it, but a truth that is worth holding…

    We need to evolve!

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    True, we do need to evolve. Sometimes I still struggle with the last thing you said, though. While I think the truth itself is worth holding, even in our partial and imperfect ways, I don’t believe that every view of that truth is equal and equally worth holding. There are views that I am challenging myself to understand without necessarily committing myself a priori to agreeing with or legitimizing.

  • Gibrán says:

    I get that. I guess I mean to say that we all hold a portion of the truth, sort of like the 5 blind men and the elephant. So somewhere within an untenable perspective there is a truthful impulse, something underneath it, a truth from which it emerges even if it grows distorted. I’m definitely not claiming to be at that level of development!

  • Curtis says:

    I’m with you Cynthia. I see the bigger challenge in trying to find what is true and valid in what can increasingly seem like vitriolic attack or defense. I struggle to “accept the other as a legitimate other” (quoting Humberto Maturana’s definition of love) at these times. And ultimately there has to be give on both sides to see that “the law of three” (as Carol Sanford likes to call it) is greater than the bi-polar perspective and fight. If we can hold tension long enough without destroying ourselves and one another, then that kind of development and evolution Gibran speaks of can emerge. And I too see people and moments where it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to find anything valid in the other. There is such a thing as mental and spiritual illness, after all! And perhaps it is at these times that we are called to step back and look at the bigger picture and conditions that are leading to this illness. Still scratching my head . . .

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    A head scratcher indeed!I have an easier time accepting the legitimacy of the “other” in the sense of the legitimacy of their humanity, and even their right to hold ideas that I can’t accept. The hard part is accepting the legitimacy of all ideas and trying to find the grain of truth or legitimacy within them. To pose what I think of as an extreme example, think about NAMBLA. I can support their right to hold their views, but personally, I can’t find anything to support in their views and would even work to prevent their views from causing harm to children and teens. The same for neo-Nazi or white suppremacist groups. This is where it gets hard for me to even want to search for the grain of truth which has become so distorted (at least as I see things).

  • Charlie Jones says:

    This is a rich topic. I heard the same program on NPR this weekend.

    G-man, I dig your moves AND I have to say there is much evolving we will have to do to get to what you are talking about.

    We seem to live in a period where every “truth” is legitimized no matter how contrived or skewed that “truth” happens to be. This is how we end up endlessly debating over the “truth & consequences” of climate change rather than taking the actions that we clearly need to take.

    Not sure how it fits, but I am reminded of a bumper sticker that reads: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Love that last piece of advice!

  • Eudora Watson says:

    “What helps you to listen authentically with a desire to understand the other person’s view?” I listen best when I have a real interest in what the other person is saying. And I keep that interest alive by bringing curiosity into play. Curiosity keeps me listening – even through what seems to be a well worn rant from the person I’m having a discussion with. I listen for the words they speak that will bring to my mind a question to ask that will help clarify for me, and sometimes for them as well, the other person’s view. Being truly listened to is so rare – in my experience people drop the cliches and firebrands when they know I am listening closely, with no agenda other than to understand.

  • Thanks Eudora. I hear you about curiosity and agree about the power of deep listening. Where I have trouble is when the view I’m inquiring into deeply offends me or dehumanizes me or others, it’s challenging for me to maintain a purely curious posture. Parts of me move in different directions at a moment like that: toward self protection, away from curiosity, toward sharing the impact of what the person’s saying, toward wanting to influence or inform. That’s when I feel the strongest tension between maintaining a posture of generous, generative listening and attempting to influence or even to say, as Gibran did so eloquently above, that there are some things we don’t have to tolerate.

  • james says:

    It does’nt matter what country or what political party is involved, All politicians eventually consider only one thing…re-election. It does’nt matter what their original motivation was, re-election will become their “God”…all else is secondary.


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