Listening is at the heart of any productive effort to resolve conflict. At times, it’s the only action that can help people move forward. Real listening is hard work. It requires adequate time and space. It’s not the kind of “listening” that we often observe in public disputes. It’s not the kind of “listening” that takes words out of context and fits them into an alternative narrative of who is right and who is wrong. Nor is it “listening” in order to pull out components of a possible “solution” that can then be offered to “stop” or “settle” the conflict. It’s not the “listening” that takes place in scheduled forums where people are allowed to “have their say” within time limits and with no assurance – or even real expectation – that what they say will be taken into account as future decisions are made. All of these alternative forms of “listening” — which are frequently evident in public disputes — breed cynicism rather than hope.
Genuine listening requires an active willingness to put aside our own thoughts and opinions as we listen, so that we can hear and consider experiences and perspectives different from our own. It requires some sense of humility, interdependence, and a desire to think through what the next step might be, together. It’s the kind of listening that President Obama was inviting when he stated that building trust between communities and citizens and police would “require Americans to listen and not just shout. . . That’s how we are going to move forward together, by trying to unite each other and understand each other not simply divide ourselves from one another”. Taking the time to listen this way is worth the effort. Through listening we learn more about ourselves and each other, and that learning feeds real change.
Others involved or observing the recent unrest in Ferguson also emphasized this kind of listening. The St. Louis Post Dispatch called for dialogue involving “some introspection that allows us to both recognize and learn from our region’s still strong racial divide. . .” Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson recognized both the despair that lay behind signs reading “I am a man” and “Black lives matter,” and that these signs represented an invitation to connect, to acknowledge the people behind them, and to genuinely listen to what they had to say.
As columnist E J Dionne stated, “. . . how we discuss and debate the events in Ferguson really matters.” This is because we need to “step outside the usual boundaries of our discord” if we are going to rebuild trust within our communities. The very act of genuine listening stretches those boundaries and changes how we think. How we define “community” is determined in part by who we are willing to invite into our conversation – – who we are willing to offer a listening ear to, and thus recognize as inextricably related to us. Genuine listening is the hard work of democracy, and it is the responsibility of both citizens and those in appointed or elected positions.
Before we can find “solutions” or “move on” from a deeply rooted conflict that erupts in our community, we need to create safe spaces for listening and sharing. This includes a mix of informal processes like listening circles or conversation cafes hosted by individuals, churches, or civic groups, and formal processes that are supported with a commitment from those in power to act, and act collaboratively, on what is heard. And then we need to actually listen to each other, share, and build on what we have learned. Like tributaries to the Mississippi, it takes many listening conversations, small and large, and flowing together, to build the trust that sustains community.