I was inspired to write this week’s post after watching an enlightening Ted Talk from Theo E.J. Wilson called A Black Man Goes Undercover in the Alt-Right. Don’t worry, this post is not to advocate for any particular position on the political and social spectrum. Rather it’s about the lost art of listening and communicating to understand one another. Theo rightly points out things that prevent us from understanding each other and I have added some of the principles of influence that make it easy to happen:
These algorithms begin to filter information to us that we already view and believe, an application of the principle of consistency. It’s no different than the Amazon recommendations that pop up based on prior purchase decisions and sites you’ve viewed. Isn’t it someone freaky how you can start to type in a Google search and the choices that appear almost always contain the exact search you need? It’s as if Google read your mind! This curating of information is constantly going on behind the scenes and may be limiting your worldview.
We make active choices that narrow our worldview such as only watching Fox News or CNN to the exclusion of all other media outlets. We do so because other large groups of people like us – the principle of consensus – hold the same views. I try to watch MSNBC and Fox in equal amounts because it’s like viewing the world from the North Pole and South Pole. Doing so gives me a better view of the entire planet. Make no mistake, news outlets are run by human beings and have their own bias points of view so be wary.
We tend to hang out with like-minded people. This is a natural phenomenon – the liking principle – because we like people who are similar to us and it’s less taxing mentally to have conversations with people who think like we do.
Online “conversations” aren’t really conversations at all. They’ve become forums to espouse views then vehemently defend them. This is one way the principle of consistency can lead us astray. For more on this I will refer you to a post I wrote years ago called Why Facebook Doesn’t Change Anyone’s Opinion.
I’m sure you can think of more things that limit our ability to understand each other. Here are some ideas to perhaps change this. By change I don’t necessarily mean your views have to change but, if you come to understand another person, their point of view, and can maintain respect for them, then isn’t that a good thing?
When was the last time you had a conversation with someone who was different than you, not to convince them of your point of view, but to simply get to know them and their point of view better? I find it’s best to do this in person, over coffee, a drink, or a meal, where there can be dialog instead of monologue.
Have you ever asked someone what it’s like to be them? Two conversations I’ll never forget happened with a couple of African-Americans; a coworker and my best friend. With my coworker, I asked her on a flight from Nashville to Columbus what it was like to be an African-American working at my company. She talked non-stop the entire flight and I had a new, enlightened point of view.
The other conversation was with my best friend after Barak Obama won the presidential election in 2008. You cannot imagine the pride he expressed at something he never thought he would see in his lifetime. I don’t believe in either case the conversations would have happened if I had not opened the door with questions. Give a safe place for people to express themselves and you’ll be surprised at what you hear.
What was refreshing in the Ted Talk was hearing Theo acknowledge that many people who held views completely opposite from his were still people just like him. He saw pictures of kids and families. He saw people who enjoyed activities and liked to have fun. They were humans who viewed the world differently. When we lose sight of other people’s humanity we’re in big trouble because we treat them as things to be opposed. We need not look any further than Nazi Germany and the Holocaust to see what people can do to those they consider less than human.
It was also refreshing to hear Theo acknowledge flaws in the thinking of people he more closely aligned himself with. Every side has flaws because they’re made up of human beings, all of whom are flawed.
Someone asked me recently if I thought our country was more divided than ever. My response was no because there was a time we were so divided we plummeted into civil war. We have an opportunity to turn much of our negativity and opposition into something better. In order to do that I believe we need to stop opposing each other, stop shouting each other down and start having real, person to person conversations. Steven Covey encouraged us to “seek first to understand, then be understood.” That would be a great starting place. I encourage you this week, reach out to someone who is different than you and start a dialogue.