Just Listen: A Simple Tool for Minimizing Bias and Transforming Relationships
May 3, 2016 | Cecily Erin Hill
We’ve written a great deal about the power of conversations on this blog. Books@Work professors have considered how our seminars create space for hard conversations in the workplace and how they help us bridge differences and share ideas. When writing our reflections – our “Musings” – we continually refer back to our own conversations with participants. Conversations, we recognize time and again, open the door to empathy and understanding. They bring us closer to one another – especially when we take the time to share our stories and listen to those of others.
Recent research confirms our sense that conversation has the power to transform people and their relationships with others. In a recent article, published in Science, David Broockman of Stanford and Joshua Kalla of UC Berkeley studied a door-to-door canvassing technique designed to reduce voters’ biases and interpersonal phobias. They concluded that “a single approximately 10-minute conversation [. . .] can reduce prejudice.” This reduction in prejudice lasts overtime – “at least 3 months” – and withstands attack. Conversations, they demonstrate, have the power to bridge seemingly vast divides.
But not all conversations are equally powerful. The transformative conversations described in this study include “active processing” and “perspective-taking.” In other words, these conversations ask people to explain their own opinions and perspectives, as well as “imagine the world from another’s vantage point.” By taking on the perspectives of others, we bridge the differences between us.
Strikingly, transformative conversations are more about the act of listening than they are about the art of persuasion. Broockman and Kalla emphasize that “canvassers asked voters to explain their views.” Later, they “asked each voter to talk about a time when they themselves were judged negatively for being different” while “encouraging them to think about their experiences” as a window onto others’ point of view.
What Broockman and Kalla show, in sum, is that in an increasingly divisive world, it pays to listen more than it does to talk.Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be good listeners in our daily lives. As Broockman observed, discussing his research with The Atlantic, “The thing is that people aren’t very often listened to, in a way that makes them really think through the decisions they make in their own lives.” Perhaps we are too distracted, too overwhelmed with our own concerns to really focus on what others are saying. Or perhaps we don’t often open up to the people around us, making it hard for them to respond in kind.
But we can practice genuine communication. We can create opportunities to really listen. In fact, Books@Work participants consistently report that the chance to listen and learn from others is part of what makes their experiences in our seminars so powerful. As one participant explained, “We were all giving very personal insights into things, and everyone was very willing to listen and be supportive . . . Even the people that didn’t agree. There was something about corporal punishment, and stuff like that. Some people believed in it and some didn’t. They had different views, but no one was to the point that they were upset with that person. They were just really listening and trying to see where that perspective was coming from.”
In the safe space of the literature discussion, participants feel empowered to open up and be vulnerable—to share their stories and listen to those of others. And from sharing and listening, participants often come to deeply empathize with and understand their colleagues. They frequently reflect on how Books@Work programs encouraged them to take on and imagine the world from their colleagues’ perspectives: “You get an idea of what other people are going through and you put yourselves in their shoes, and then you have a way [to say] “Okay, let’s see how we can do this together. How can we make this work together?” Or, as another participant said, “the experience will stick with me because of the people . . . It’s one of those things where you don’t know what a person’s going through until you walk in their shoes.”
To walk in another person’s shoes, whether by taking on their perspective or by realizing that their experiences align with our own in surprising ways, is a practice that extends outward into our lives. Listening and connecting shapes our thought processes in a lasting way. It brings us closer together.
Image: Henri Matisse, The Conversation, c. 1912, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, [Public Domain] via Wikipedia.org
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Cecily Erin Hill
Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.