How Active Listening Can Change Us Vs. Them Thinking

Uncategorized Feb 01, 2021

How do you change someone’s mind, when asking them to change their mind means asking them to change what they believe about themself? 

This ethical dilemma is deeply familiar to me. 

Recently, I read two articles that touch on the concept of us-vs.-them - a basic phrase to summarize those interactions where you’re talking to someone whose mind you really want to change. Madeleine Albright writes about “Our destructive us-vs.-them thinking” in Time Magazine’s Feb. 1/Feb. 8, 2021 issue. And Adam Grant writes about “The Science of Reasoning with Unreasonable People” on January 31, 2021 in the NY Times. 

Albright wrote, 

However we conceive of “us,” we have ample grounds for humility. There is no question that we all have a right to quarrel with one another; that is the democratic way. But we also have a responsibility to talk frankly and to listen carefully, to recognize our own faults and to refrain from dehumanizing labels on those with whom we disagree.

And Grant wrote about how he tried a new way to communicate with a friend of his about a topic on which they have, apparently, polar opposite beliefs - complete with an amusing imaginary conversation about the Harry Potter universe. 

My favorite part of Grant’s op/ed in the Times was not the bit about Voldemort, though that made me grin - it was that he expressed some humility, and said his “win” in having an open-hearted conversation with a friend of his was, simply, that Grant himself did not behave like a “logic bully” (his own phrase). 

What Grant did, instead, was to express genuine curiosity and to actively listen. He just sought to understand why his very good, very smart friend was so passionately against vaccines. 

Both Albright and Grant are writing about something I rarely include in my trainings: humility. When you actively listen to someone, you’re setting aside all the wonderful things you really want to say to them - all your intelligent, passionate arguments for why they should do or believe this important thing - all your beautiful beliefs - you just, simply, don’t share them. And ideally, you try not to even think about them - because actively listening is about listening to someone else’s beliefs. If you’re truly trying to understand someone else, then your own ideas have to come second to listening, and seeking to understand. 

You’re probably thinking, “But I don't want to understand them - I want them to think like I do!” 

And I get that. I really, really do - there are So. Many. People. in the world, many of whom I know well and deeply love, who I just want to believe what I believe! Because, obviously, my beliefs are the right ones. 

If that last paragraph sounded sarcastic, it was (surprisingly) not intended that way - this is often how we feel. Whether you are comfortable with vaccines or not, whether you vote or not, whether you agree with Republicans or Democrats, whether you recycle or not - your own beliefs and actions are important to you. They are part of who you are. 

And who doesn’t want to be seen? To have their beliefs heard? To be understood? 

We all do. Whatever your beliefs are, you want them to be recognized - we all want to be seen and heard. 

So the next time you want to change someone’s mind, try setting aside your own beliefs about whatever it is you want feel so passionately about, and just ask them about why they believe whatever they believe. Another way to phrase this comes to mind as a Stephen Covey quote, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” 

Get curious first, then offer your own beliefs - or questions - frankly, honestly, and with a bit of humility. 

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