In times of extreme political and ideological polarization, we can be tempted to categorize people and draw conclusions about their perspective before we fully understand. We can fall into the trap of assuming what people mean and placing their words in our contextual thinking before we fully grasp what is said. We can fall victim to the urge to correct, argue, and dismiss rather than listen and build understanding. The result can be embarrassing responses, disconnected declarations, and unnecessary conflict.
Consider a statement such as, “Our schools are hurting students.” These may feel like “fighting words” to those of us who give our lives to educating young people and who for the past two years have fought to protect their health and safety. How can schools be hurting students? Schools exist to nurture, protect, and support young people. Yet, after further dialogue, we understand that the statement comes from a perspective that schools are too standardized and rigid to serve the needs of all children. The argument is for more flexibility and personalization. Once we understand the intent of and context for the statement, many of our initial assumptions may be dispelled and we might see the statement in a new light. We may even agree and choose to engage in an exploratory conversation about how schools might be more flexible in response to the wide range of student learning and support needs.
Before deciding we know what is intended and what the other person is thinking, we do well to inquire, invite explanation, and open a dialogue. Yet, seeking to understand can be challenging as we often respond emotionally and feel the urge to pushback and defend what we think is counter to our thinking.
Of course, choosing to listen and learn can help us to avoid many of the communication missteps and pitfalls that can lead to unwarranted conflict and even embarrassment. When we find ourselves ready to draw conclusions, push back, and dismiss what we hear, we can shift our focus to learning by presenting one or more of the following invitations:
- Tell me more… This response “opens the door” for the speaker to explain their meaning and provide context to help us understand what is behind the statement. Often, this simple invitation is enough to clarify the intent behind the words and create an opportunity for a productive dialogue.
- Walk me through how you think about… This request invites greater depth of information about how the speaker is “connecting dots” and creating meaning about the topic or issue at hand. What we hear may provide us with key information to probe further or find some common ground upon which we can begin a dialogue.
- What has led you to conclude… In this question we are probing what and who has influenced the person’s thinking and led them to the conclusion behind their statement. We may find that some confusion has found its way into their thinking, or someone they trust has told them what to think, even though they have not fully examined the source and implications of what they have said. Conversely, we may find that they have information we do not and that their perspective deserves our closer examination.
- What are some examples… This response is often most effective when the statement we hear features generalities and vague accusations. By asking for examples, we can better understand the implications of what is being said. We may also find that the person has no specific examples and is passing along an unverified rumor. This may be a context in which we choose to withhold judgment until we have access to more specifics and clear examples.
Admittedly, it can be difficult to step back and pause when we hear what seem to be untrue and baseless statements. Yet, unless we understand the source and context of these statements, we risk appearing foolish and judgmental. Taking some time to listen and learn can be a valuable investment of our time and attention and build useful important common ground.