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ROBBINS: The power of radical listening

Acknowledging arguments we disagree with can help us learn and create change

<p>I believe strongly that it is important to go into a conversation with the mindset that a person’s beliefs are backed up by reason.</p>

I believe strongly that it is important to go into a conversation with the mindset that a person’s beliefs are backed up by reason.

The state of political polarization in today’s world is impossible to ignore. On an individual level, we feel the frustration that comes from listening to someone else prattle on about beliefs we don’t agree with. The tension is palpable.  And this emotion is valid and natural — we’re inclined to hold our ground and become staunchly connected to what we believe. Our convictions make us emotional beings, and what follows is a kind of visceral negative reaction towards hearing someone discounting our core beliefs. Discomfort is instinctive, but we can’t let it stifle valuable conversations by labeling others based on their beliefs and refusing to listen.

While this discomfort is natural and valid, what follows is often shutting down conversation to avoid listening to an opposing argument. We tend to censor others by refusing to listen. When we disagree with someone, we immediately “other” that person by labeling them and their argument as malevolent. Labeling someone simply because they disagree automatically invalidates their experience and becoming defensive achieves nothing. While we may feel like we are taking the moral high ground and defending against what we see as indecent arguments, we’re actually limiting conversations that could prove extraordinarily valuable.

And so I propose an alternative approach — the concept of radical listening. Radical listening is the idea of taking the time to be an observant listener. Rather than immediately making judgments about one’s argument, radical listening encourages the listener to meet the person where they’re at and be an open and active audience who welcomes differing perspectives. Radical listening typically refers to a more passive approach to listening in which the listener doesn’t jump in and potentially disrupt the speaker through adding their own opinions. This allows the speaker to have space to feel heard and comfortable being listened to. I argue that this can also be extended to situations of disagreement and debate. We should actively give space — without immediate judgement — to those with whom we disagree. 

Marie Beecham — a college student and activist who rose to prominence due to her powerful insights during the civil unrest in the summer of 2020 — is a key proponent of radical listening. Beecham advocates for two concepts that resonate heavily with this idea. Her first message — “being a pleasure to disagree with” — revolves around being a respectful listener and conversationalist who gives others time to articulate their views in a patient manner. She argues that labeling the disagreer as inherently malevolent because of their beliefs not only stifles discussion, but can also create a false binary. Thus, she encourages us to go into a conversation with the “best available motive approach,” that is, entering with the assumption that the person speaking is coming from a good place with their argument.

I believe strongly that it is important to go into a conversation with the mindset that a person’s beliefs are backed up by reason. Give them a chance to prove you wrong. Extend a concept similar to the idea of being innocent until proven guilty — give someone the opportunity to be listened to as though they are innocent of any malintent. Allow them to articulate exactly what their view is, without it being taken out of context, and without initial judgement. Maybe, deep down, they do come from a place of hatred, but we can’t know until we allow them to speak. 

When we take a moment to let others speak, despite any qualms with what they’re saying, we open ourselves to being able to find the commonalities we share. While our beliefs may manifest themselves in different ways, oftentimes, we tend to share a common set of core values. Only through actively listening can we begin to find common threads and begin to solve problems through our understanding of others' needs.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge my privilege in discussing this topic — I am a cisgender, heterosexual white woman. While I have certainly experienced sexism in my life, I have never experienced and will never experience racism, homophobia, or any other form of serious and horrific discrimination. My privilege allows me to experience open discussions without fear of the trauma that can come with being a part of a historically marginalized community. Having an open conversation should never come at the price of mental or physical safety. If listening and acknowledging someone’s argument means placing yourself in harm’s way, it is absolutely unnecessary. 

This being said, I encourage you — if you feel safe doing so — to try to find this sense of common ground. Embrace your discomfort. Remember your own humanity and the simple golden rule we were all taught as children — treat others as you wish to be treated. Listen as you wish to be listened to. And remember that deep down, no matter the perceived or actual divisions, we all share one thing — we’re human.

Hailey Robbins is a Viewpoint Writer for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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