Today I read an interesting quote from Alan Alda, “Listening is being able to be changed by the other person.” That quote might seem a little scary at gut level. Why?  In these times of such extreme polarization, we might think that listening could mean we change into what the other person is or believing ideas that we  currently consider abhorrent.

Another reason involves our brain wiring, wiring that evolved for survival in prehistoric times but does not always serve us well these days. From my upcoming book, Women Can Renew the World If…and So Can You:

We are wired to remain consistent with positions we have taken. This helps others to trust us…. The drive for consistency is so irresistible that people can use it to manipulate others into making decisions that are clearly against their better interests. Cult leaders use people’s commitments to a belief or a cause to draw them into suicide pacts, such as those of the Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown cults.

If, however, we listen skillfully, we have more to gain than to lose.

Listening to Boring People

I posted the Alan Alda quote to a Facebook group I administer, asking group members when listening to someone else changed them in a good way. One member wrote:

Thinking of so many times I have learned that there is more to a person than I realized, when I kept listening past things that were irritating. E.g., some folks (not I! 😉) have hobbyhorses and I admit to glazing over a bit when they start talking about the thing they have talked about before. And then, when I have paid more attention and really listened, they have moved on past that and showed themselves to be really deep, thoughtful people who had a lot more in their hearts than that one issue.

A good way to help a person who repeats themself to move on is to paraphrase their idea back to them before attempting to introduce a different point of view. If you counter argue, they think you didn’t get their point the first three times, so they say it still again.

You Don’t Have to Listen to Everything

In particular, you don’t have to listen to, or read, toxic matter, such as ranting and raving or hate speech. I don’t listen to any 24 hour news channel pundits. I don’t watch such channels at all. I read the most objective news sources I can find.

What if someone starts a passionate political or religious discussion? In Women Can Renew the World If…, I write about cost benefit analysis with respect to prospective conversations–not about money, but rather time and mental and emotional energy. The costs of trying to change the mind of an extremist are so high, and the chances of success are so low, that it’s better to exit the conversation in a way that neither  shuts the door on a future discussion nor leaves the other person thinking you agree with them. “I have some other ideas about this, but I think it’s time for a break.”

In fact, in any discussion that raises emotions that make it difficult for you to continue the conversation, which is only human, it’s better to wait until if and when you can keep your cool. (Women Can Renew the World If… includes a section on keep your cool fitness training.)

Listening to Understand

Once, at a luncheon meeting, I sat beside a man who spoke favorably about a local gynecologist whom I knew to be extremely and vocally against a woman’s right to decide.[1] It was a high-cost, low-benefit topic to pursue, but Instead of expressing my own opinion, I asked the man why he thought so well of the doctor. He replied, “For one thing, he saved my wife’s life.” No fear of him changing me into an anti-abortionist, but I saw him as more human. He may or may not have supported women’s decision, but he loved his wife. Asking a question and listening to the answer prevented me from vilifying him, and that’s a good thing.

Listening for Options

Interest based consensus building and persuasion are all about discovering various ways to satisfy the interests and concerns of both parties. Asking open questions and listening carefully to the answers open up alternatives from which the parties can choose. A simple, low stakes example from Women Can Renew the World If…: “Pearl and her coworker Bill are going to lunch. Pearl suggests a salad bar, but George really wants Italian food. They could settle for a lukewarm compromise, such as a mediocre pizza slice bar that serves side salads.”

But by asking each other’s reasons for their preferences and explaining their own reasons, they might discover that Pearl wants an extensive salad bar that includes lots of different kinds of vegetables, fruit, meat, and tasty toppings because she had a heavy meal last night. Bill has to work late and wants a heavy meal to see him through without supper. Pearl might suggest, “Jason’s Deli has excellent pasta and meatballs as well as a very extensive salad bar that would satisfy my wish for a complete, but light, meal.”

And, yes, this does work in more serious situations.

Try This

Spend 15 or 20 minutes this evening thinking about a time when someone really listened to you and let you know they understood. They didn’t necessarily say they agreed, but you could tell they understood. How did that affect your inclinations toward that person?


[1] I prefer “decision” to “choice” because the latter seems to me to trivialize a decision the few women take lightly.