I’m seated at the front of the room as co-chair of a committee called Dialogue Initiative. Everyone walks into the room with a mix of enthusiasm and reservation.
We’ve sold the meeting as a place to have difficult conversations, with one big caveat: the goal is not to convince somebody else to change their mind. While our deepest desire may be to learn the tools for persuasive arguments, the goal we have all agreed upon is to learn to listen. The banter will sound much different than how we typically converse. One person will talk, while the other will listen. No interrupting. No planning your response while you listen. Just listening. This is hard; it’s not how we usually engage.
The room is full of eager rule followers. The prompt is, “I don’t think American Jews should publicly criticize Israel.” As the talking begins, people work hard to stick to the script. It isn’t easy or natural, but the exercise is a success. At the end of the meeting, participants feel uncomfortable, and they want to come back for more.
Many of the participants in this initiative have attended sessions before where communication consultants discuss which arguments will resonate best with people when we talk about Israel. They’ve advised us on which stories and which words will be most effective in convincing others. It’s so hard to step away from that argument approach. So, at the start of the next meeting, when someone asks, “When will we learn the most effective way to present our point of view,” we understand the challenge of this novel approach.
But we keep at it. Over time, people become more at ease with listening. With 50% less volume in the room, it’s clear that people are exercising their ears more. At the end of the discussion, people report what their partners have said in their one-on-one exchange. The language is kind and respectful; we all feel that the needle has moved.
At each subsequent meeting, we change the topic and the exercise. People start to feel more comfortable taking turns listening and talking.
In this room, we are engaging and strengthening some important muscles.
Scene change. I’m at dinner with friends. The conversation turns to the murder of George Floyd. One friend says, “Well, you know he wasn’t such a great guy.” Someone else raises the “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” argument. And a conversation ensues that leaves me speechless and enraged.
I feel my blood pressure rising. I have arguments racing through my brain. But I sit there in aggressive silence. I have lost every ounce of muscle I learned during those organized meetings. Those meetings that made me feel like I was mastering the art of listening. Those meetings that made me feel like I could accept a dramatically different perspective.
I feel simultaneously fascinated and defeated. How did I leave the meeting where we took turns and listened respectfully only to enter a social setting completely unable to apply those new skills?
I have some thoughts. In one setting, everyone has walked into the room with a suit of armor. We are prepared to hear things we don’t agree with. More importantly, we are following a defined and agreed-upon plan—to listen completely and with an open mind. When we respond, we can ask questions to gather more insight, but not to argue. And then it’s our turn to talk without interruption followed by questions. The “talk then listen” model is clearly established before each discussion starts, no matter the topic.
When we socialize, we arrive unarmed. The setting is informal. The talk is casual. There is no pre-approved game plan. Naturally, we let our guard down. So when that moment of disruption arrives, we are caught unprepared.
This leaves me wondering. With more practice, can I strengthen my ability to use my new skills outside that room?
Maybe, like an athlete or musician, I need to work harder to build stronger muscle memory so that when I lose focus, my skills kick in reflexively.
One more thought: Would we do better to enter social settings, including family gatherings, with our armor on and set articulated guidelines? Is that even possible?