Right now in America, we have a civic discourse that is shrinking dangerously. Might a portion of the shrinkage be attributed to how we have been trained to listen?
Over the years, I have lost count of the number of times I have been instructed in listening. First in professional development classes as an educator, and later as a graduate student and in counseling sessions, I have been the recipient of repeated recitations of the personal benefits of being a good listener. Call it the “self-help” approach to listening: We should listen because we stand to gain something. While self-help listening offers some advantages for learning in a class or cooperating with a difficult coworker, other ways of listening have not been given their due.
It is important to approach listening in a way that steps outside the ubiquitous self-help paradigm, a listening which is a practice of humility. Listening with humility has inherent value, both within and apart from civic discourse. Additionally, there are utilitarian reasons to listen with humility, which are to the benefit of civic discourse, even when they prove challenging for the listener.
To listen without humility is to presume a right to evaluate, to judge, and to control the conversation. Each of these acts is an act of dominance. This is not a dismissal or accusation; dominance is highly salient in American culture. But I do not need to make a judgment about the value of dominance to suppose it is ultimately incompatible with one’s ability to listen with humility—to listen for listening’s own sake, without presuming you have a right to control. Listening is humility when it relinquishes dominance.
And thus, listening with humility seems weak. Somehow, listening becomes a negative reflection on the listener, a noticeable failure to defend our boundaries and, by extension, a capitulation of our values. The logic of self-help listening makes one far less likely to engage with a political opponent, because the reasons for self-help listening conflate listening with understanding, accepting, internalizing, and believing. To offer such opportunity to a political opponent feels like inviting an unwanted conversion experience. It is as if listening cannot be paired with conviction.
Because of the high salience of dominance in American culture, humble listening may seem vulnerable, even dangerous. It represents a moment when you are not marshalling your defenses, or even the next reply. I agree that listening makes us vulnerable, but listening does not make us weak. Nothing about listening with humility should suggest we surrender our convictions. However, why you would wish to be vulnerable in this way is a valid question, particularly because, as I have intimated, this act of humility is mostly undertaken without any of the typical self-help benefits to you, the listener.
Here is a preliminary list of reasons to accept vulnerability and to practice humility through listening.
Listening to others is a gift. Give another person a space in which they will not be dominated, at least for a few minutes.
Listening is justice. Listening without domination is not merely humble; it is also just. Justice can be understood as right relationships between people. You cannot hope to build such a relationship without acknowledging the perspectives of others. It is not inevitable that you accept those perspectives, but the acknowledgment is foundational to relationships, and only comes through listening.
Listening is recognition. Only in listening humbly can we create a moment of radical openness to the inherent worth and dignity of the other. When we fail to perceive the worth and dignity of our opponents, we are truly lost.
Listening is a sine qua non of authentic engagement. Listening with humility implies a moment taken for reflection. Dialogue without reflection is a hollow performance.
Listening is essential to another kind of humility: intellectual humility. No matter how predictable you find the person or the point of view they are expressing, you will be challenged by the fundamental indeterminacy of human interaction. People change, and so do ideologies. Listening is a facet of intellectual humility: the humility to be surprised.
Listening is life-affirming. Listening is a hopeful action, one that encourages growth and greater accord. This point can also be stated in the negative: Don’t listen to what is life-denying. Don’t listen to someone who is victimizing you or questioning your humanity. White supremacists, Nazis, abusers—these are some exceptions to the imperative to listen.
Practicing humility through listening could turn out to be a necessary measure against the disappearance of civic discourse itself. Self-help listening, in its feebleness, offers no motivation to overcome our dislike or relinquish our platforms, or to put away our arguments and our self-justifications. Our arguments feel like necessary armor for our egos, but we can learn that armor is not always necessary. If listening is done for only self-help purposes, I worry that civic discourse will continue to evaporate.
I know how impossible a culture-wide reorientation in listening seems, and I understand exactly why it seems impossible. In chapter 24 of The Iliad, the gods arrange history so that the Greek hero Achilles has a chance to listen to Priam, the enemy king. I am not a classical scholar, but to me, this story reads as metaphor for the superhuman effort it can take to listen when we do not want to. Achilles could have shot Priam down, literally and figuratively. That Priam survived and Achilles listened is so incredible that The Iliad can account for it only through intervention by the gods.
Some of us still hope for divine intervention to fix a broken civic discourse, but even so, a human remedy is already at hand. Major world religions share a commitment to humility. It seems that few religious communities currently emphasize listening as a core practice. However, most religious traditions actively espouse the cultivation of humility, which is foundational for the listening practices we should seek to develop. In religious communities, we have structures in place that value humility and that already teach practitioners to listen humbly to God or the Spirit. These communities are ideally situated to elevate the practice of listening from self-help application to a tool for more productive civic discourse. Listening with humility may be only a small contribution, but it is a worthy one.
Footnote: A Note on Terminology
Listening is not the physical process of hearing. Much profound listening done by human beings is a completely internal process. Whether you are listening to your heart, your gut, or to God or the Spirit, you are not using the aural sense. That type of spiritually-profound listening is what I am trying to call to in this piece. I also do not wish to be disablist; the “listening” concept does not belong only to those who physically hear.