In the course of a few days, I met with a politician with liberal perspectives vying for a seat in congress and a public servant in our local government office that affiliates with the conservative right. The end goal was to better understand how our church could better connect with the local community in order to share the love of Jesus.
Entering into the political arena of any persuasion is not my norm, so I thought a lot about how I would engage. (Simply put, I didn’t want to look like an idiot.) My priority was to learn as much as I could from these two individuals, acknowledging to myself that I did not agree with some of their positions.
As I thought about this, I was reminded of a few things I learned when I practiced as a professional counselor. But it’s one thing to be knowledgable about listening skills and it’s another thing to put them into practice!
I decided it would be good if I could . . .
#1. Listen with a non-judgmental posture.
Easier said than done. Basically this means to take in information without immediate evaluation, judgement, or bias. Since learning often shuts down when judgement rises up, I wanted to take this objective stance.
Some days objectivity eludes me. In this political climate, hostile voices disappoint and dishearten. I struggle with the nasty verbiage that’s volleyed back and forth between Republicans and Democrats on social media. I despise the name calling, the vulgarities, and the put downs from both sides. Whatever happened to civility? Is it possible to establish dialogue, not defensiveness?
I also wanted to avoid “getting sucked in” to a particular agenda, which leads to the idea of differentiation.
The level of individuality one maintains in the presence of others is a mark of differentiation. Differentiation relates to how susceptible the self is to group think or group pressure. It does allow you to distance yourself from the speaker in a way that helps you better form your own perspective.
Sometimes when I agree with someone at the onset, I quickly “buy into what they are selling.” I didn’t want to fall into that trap.
My emotions can get the best of me and I forget that it’s possible to think and feel at the same time. The act of putting pen to paper helps.
#3 Bring a notebook.
Note taking is a good tool to keep me in my thinking part of my brain and taming the more emotional areas. The act of writing activates a process that helps the brain more completely integrate thoughts and feelings. Note taking allows one to look at what’s being said and consider it more carefully.
Active discourse has its place and truly there is a time to speak out for our beliefs. But I wonder if the political atmosphere would become less toxic if the scales of listening and speaking were more balanced.
As a Christ follower, I turn to Jesus as the one who models this best. I love how Jesus listens empathically to his disciples’ lament and speaks emphatically to their apparent spiritual amnesia during a walk with Him to the town of Emmaus. (See Luke for the complete narrative.) The communication skills of Jesus are balanced perfectly
Listening well is hard work. Preconceived notions, passion, and political leanings can dissuade the brain to bypass the pre-frontal cortex where emotion, behavior, and cognition are regulated. It takes effort to stay in that area of the brain that facilitates solid listening skills. If particularly tweaked or triggered, an amygdala hijacks can occur. You might know that as a 10-2 reaction. In other words, on a scale from one to ten, ten is an extremely reactive state and two is a benign, rather harmless event.
When my son was a teenager he wanted to know why I yelled so loudly at him for slamming the door. I remember repeated times of shouting at the top of my lungs, “Brian, don’t slam the door!” Seriously? Did a door slam require rage? Definitely a 10-2.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that handles emotion. A hijacks occurs as the thinking and behaving part of the brain shuts down while feelings take center stage in the amygdala. Fury at a door slam is a silly, albeit real example. At a more serious level, I bemoan how current socio-political news feeds have become hijack accomplices.
Whether on the home front or the front lines of transforming community, we can be a stabilizer for change. My early morning devotional speaks directly to the heart of the matter.
“We should all endeavor and labor for a calmer spirit, that we may the better serve God in praying to Him and praising Him; and serve one another in love, that we may be fitted to do and receive good; that we may make our passage to heaven more easy and cheerful, without drooping and hanging the wing. So much as we are quiet and cheerful upon ground, so much we live and are, as it were, in heaven.”
Richard Sibbes, 17th century Anglican theologian