I’ve written in this space before about the importance of hearing all voices. Whether in politics, business or everyday life, finding common ground and building shared belief, which are essential to peaceful coexistence and progress, require not just persuasive skills, but also a willingness to listen with an open heart and mind.
Today’s polarized world is characterized by opponents who shout opinions, denigrate others and view compromise as a violation of principles. I argue that, while one’s beliefs are important and should be treasured, there is great value in hearing others’ views with respect and humility.
I’d like to recommend two wonderful reads, both from the New York Times, that powerfully illustrate my point.
The first is a recent guest column by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. He tells the remarkable story of a recent pro-Trump rally in the U.S. capital where a Black Lives Matter leader was given an opportunity to take the stage. The mere act of listening and respecting the other’s point of view dissipated the hostility.
Brooks references “a culture polarized by the perception that we are good and virtuous, while they are inhuman and evil.… But on the odd occasion that people are exposed to each other as people, as at the rally in Washington, othering is hard to maintain. And that is the rare moment when human compassion and empathy can break out.”
The second is a speech by Times columnist Bret Stephens, delivered last September in Sydney upon his receipt of the Lowy Institute Media Award. Drawing on lessons from Socrates, Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzsche and others, Stephens makes the case that, “to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.”
This last line is perhaps the hardest and yet the most important. We must listen with a willingness to change our minds, to accept that the other may have a point, that we are not always right – or at least that right and wrong aren’t always a zero-sum proposition. If we are not willing to do that, how can we expect the other to do so?
This does not mean we (particularly corporate communicators, who rightly see ourselves as advocates for our institutions) should not defend our convictions when we believe we’re right. But if we want to earn trust and respect from others – and that, after all, is our core responsibility – we must be willing to give them the same trust and respect.
Stephens’s main point, actually, is that we must perfect the arts of disagreement. He concludes “that free men and women do not need to be protected from discomfiting ideas and unpopular arguments. More than ever, they need to be exposed to them, so that we may revive the arts of disagreement that are the best foundation of intelligent democratic life.”
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