When Southern Conservatives & San Francisco Liberals
Listened First

The below commentary by LFP Founder Pearce Godwin was published by the Huffington Post.
Our third conversation in this series was broadcast on Facebook Live and watched by 20,000 people. 

While celebrating Independence Day, I reflected on the current condition of America. There’s not much we can all agree on these days, but on this I believe there’s common ground: the fabric of our society is frayed; civil discourse is in peril.

Hatred and fear are increasingly drowning out humanity and friendship. Basic decency has given way to demagoguery. Rancor has replaced relationships. We have become so blinded by the polarization and tribalization of American society that we often cannot see another person as anything but an ideology to be despised and defeated.

This is not “those people’s” problem. It’s my problem. And it’s your problem. A problem we can only solve together.

My Listen First Project facilitates greater understanding, respect and cooperation by encouraging the timeless but abandoned practice of listening to each other, especially to those with whom we disagree. As I’ve shared our message across the country, I’ve been inspired by other leaders and organizations passionately promoting and practicing listening to improve relationships and public discourse. Listen First Project now collaborates with these organizations as The Listening Coalition – multiplying our impact coast to coast.

We recently partnered with Living Room Conversations – founded by Joan Blades of MoveOn.org fame – to bridge one of the widest gulfs in America, the caricatured stereotypes of Southern Conservatives and San Francisco Liberals.

Using video conferencing, we brought three Southern Conservatives and three San Francisco Liberals together for each of several Listen First / Living Room Conversations. Facilitated by Sabrina Moyle, Jamie Gardner and me, each of these conversations exceeded our wildest expectations and proved that we can break through any barrier and find common ground when we come together not as us versus them but as me and you.

All parties agreed to guidelines developed by our two organizations. Among others: come curious with an open mind ready to learn and grow, fully listen to and consider the other’s views before sharing your own, listen as you want to be listened to, show respect and suspend judgement, look for common ground and appreciate differences.

In these unprecedented conversations, we had a black southern conservative and an evangelical San Francisco liberal, a North Carolina Republican operative and a San Francisco Democratic party official, a pro-life activist and an abortion provider. Participants shared that they’re driven by faith, mindfulness, serving the marginalized, battling injustice, empowering others, and bettering the world for their children.

After listening to what drives each person, everyone shared the moment in life when they determined their political philosophy. We listened to stories of growing up overseas with parents in the foreign service, childhood in the Chicago projects, impactful events in the community, time spent serving in Uganda, a political college environment, classroom conversations, volunteer experiences, and indeed ideology taught by parents. One southern conservative said she was raised in a house where “Democrat” was a swear word. Another said “I realized this is not a democrat – republican thing; this is a black – white thing. Democrats were black; Republicans were white.”

With an understanding of everyone’s story, we asked each to share the issue they most wish we as Americans could solve together. And we discussed them, civilly. Topics spanned income inequality, homelessness, religious freedom, political reform, progressive taxation, economic incentives, regulation, early childhood education, transparency in government spending, individual and organizational incentives, the social safety net, conscientious objections to abortion and gay marriage, race, criminal justice, and the size, role and scope of government.

We were all struck that no issue is as simple as we like to pretend and agreed that labels stand in the way of solutions. “We argue and chant back and forth that we know the answer but that’s not the case; there are a lot of different things to take into account.” “I wish we could have conversations without these labels flying around.” “We actually may in fact agree on a lot of things outside of those labels, but those labels are sort of inculcated from a young age.”

And real, honest conversation is required to make progress on our toughest challenges. “I think for racism to get better, we need to have a deeper, more complex, more uncomfortable conversation about race like we’re having right now.” “We must respect and celebrate differences… It takes bringing people together from different backgrounds to have these explicit conversations.” “We haven’t even tried to walk across the street and ask our neighbor over for dinner.” “We get stuck in the polarization of big topics but when we actually dig down into the details, we can find more common ground to do something about it.” While we only had 90 minutes for each conversation, that was enough time to begin building familiarity and relationships that enabled civil discussion of incredibly challenging and personal issues. Such rich dialogue is not possible in sound bites, with talking points, or from behind a keyboard. It happens in conversation – real, genuine conversation – between human beings of grace, humility and good will.

Our Southern Conservatives and San Francisco Liberals, challenged by alternative perspectives, were invigorated by the experience. “So many great points by everyone,” “I totally agree with you,” “those concerns are my concerns too,” “I believe every word you said,” “it can’t just be one side or the other,” “there’s no black and white issue,” “we have far, far more in common than we do apart,” and “I learned so much just by listening to each of you. This was a transformative and expansive experience for me.”

We are all human beings with a story and a lot to learn from one another. Remaining in echo chambers with people who look like us and think like us is not only boring but limiting to our development as individuals and as a society. If we hope for a healthy, prosperous nation – from sea to shining sea – we can’t continue to demagogue our fellow Americans because they see the world differently.

We must boldly step outside our comfort zones and get to know new people from new places. If Southern Conservatives and San Francisco Liberals can do it, you can to. Together, let’s rise above the vitriol and listen first – restore civil discourse, one conversation at a time.

Pearce Godwin, President, Founder & CEO of Listen First Project
July 2017

Senator Tillis’ Scare and the Collapse of Civility in America

The below commentary by LFP Founder Pearce Godwin was a special feature in the Charlotte Observer and was shared by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times

On Wednesday morning, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis was running in a Washington, D.C., charity race when he collapsed. The Associated Press reported that he received CPR and was taken away by ambulance. In the 69 minutes that passed between that report and Sen. Tillis’ video message from the hospital, alive and well, the collapse of civility in American political discourse was put in stark relief.

While many people on Twitter from across the political spectrum offered prayers and wished Sen. Tillis well, many others instantaneously and compulsively broadcast vile contempt for a man with whom they politically disagree as his life seemingly hung in the balance. Callous comments included:

“The good news is it’s not his heart because he doesn’t have one”

“Getting what he deserves”

“One less thing to worry about”

“Put him in ice”

“Karma’s a b----, Thom Tillis”

“He is a gigantic a-hole & right-wing ideologue. See-ya”

“Maybe we should celebrate by having a beer”

“Another seat in play for 2018?”

What kind of a society have we created when many of us are filled with such boundless hatred toward our political opponents that this kind of vitriol spews out in the face of tragedy? As others responded, “regardless of politics ... the man is a human being” and “party doesn’t matter when it’s someone’s life, people!” One person implored, “Can we all just put politics aside for a moment to pray for his health?” Sadly, the resounding answer was no.

We have become so blinded by the polarization and tribalization of American politics that we cannot see another person as anything but an ideology to be despised and defeated. In the politics of 2017 America, humanity has been replaced by hate. Both sides have undoubtedly contributed to the decay, but it’s up to each of us individually to turn the tide.

Civility in our discourse has seemingly eroded at an increasing rate in recent years – attacks that would once have been unthinkable are now commonplace. As Barack Obama recently observed, “We weaken our ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided but as malevolent.” Paul Ryan shares the former president’s concern as he wrote, “It’s become increasingly common to vilify those with whom you disagree.” But Speaker Ryan also shares my hopeful vision, adding that “If we can move beyond the name calling and recriminations, we can find common ground and work together. Just by listening, we can learn a lot.”

I believe that if we hope for a healthy, prosperous nation, we can’t continue to demagogue our neighbors because they see the world differently. We must move beyond slander and seek common ground. By listening to one another, especially to those with whom we disagree, we can restore civil discourse – one conversation at a time.

With the news of Tillis’ good condition came promising notes of civility from across the aisle as one person wrote on Tillis’ Facebook page, “I disagree with everything you stand for, but I am glad to see that you are ok.” Yet another person crassly responded to seeing Tillis alive with the comment, “NC almost improved today.”

Thankfully, Sen. Tillis has recovered from his collapse. We now must pray that civil discourse in America does the same.

Pearce Godwin, President and Founder of Listen First Project
May 2017

Duke Known for Tolerance and Listening; is it True?

I think we can all attest to the fact that a large number of misconceptions exist about Duke University students. Assumptions are made all the time—that everyone’s parents are wealthy, that we spend all of our time in the library, that we’re elitist jerks—the list goes on and on. Luckily, most of these misconceptions are exactly that: misrepresentations of what students are actually like. Could it be though, that another misconception exists about Duke students that we fail to notice on a day to day basis? When I think about my friends, classmates, and the Duke student body overall, that word “tolerance” comes to mind. I assume saying that will prove controversial; many would disagree with me. But what I mean by that is, it seems like the Duke student body does a good job of listening to one another. Our campus is known as intellectual, open, and relatively progressive. So it would make sense that we imbibe other’s views and opinions readily and eagerly. However, could it be that the only reason that this perception of exceptional listening exists is because there is so little variation in opinion throughout Duke’s campus that we have grown accustomed to hearing and “listening” to exactly what we want to hear?

Overall, Duke provides a great medium to encourage listening among its students. Forums and lectures with speakers where students can ask questions and share their opinions abound at this university. Students are encouraged to speak their mind and share their opinions in classes and as part of their extracurricular activities. With clubs present on campus like the Duke Democrats, Duke College Republicans, the Duke Bipartisan Group, and especially the Listen First Project, it seems obvious that students’ viewpoints are encouraged to develop and be shared with others. These political groups partner together for campus events frequently—I myself have been a part of shared events that they have hosted. Both the Duke Democrats and Duke College Republicans frequently publicize the message of the Listen First Project. Additionally, our chapter of LFP is doing a shared round table event with the Duke Bipartisan Group to discuss current issues of contention in government, and we held a mock Presidential debate last semester where members of all of the aforementioned clubs were in attendance. With the presence of POLIS (Duke's Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service) on campus, these groups are further encouraged to interact, share their opinions, and listen to others through campus-wide events and meetings in which the heads of political organizations on campus convene to discuss issues on campus. These political-based clubs have fostered a sense of respectful disagreement and listening amongst students who may have different opinions on social and political issues.

As I write, I am sitting at a table with three of my friends. I casually look up and ask them whether, without thinking, they feel Duke promotes an environment of listening. They quickly say yes, but then, after thinking about, it, change their minds. “Actually…no” my friend Emily says. My roommate chimes in: “yes, there’s a political majority on campus, and we are open to hearing the opinion of that majority, but there’s a silent minority on campus that we actually aren’t open to listening to. The only type of information we’re interested in hearing is what we believe, and that’s created an echo chamber, where everything we’re interested in listening in just bounces off the walls of what we already know and believe.” I realize how right she is.

A pervasive confirmation bias disguises itself as tolerance for both listening to and accepting opposing views on this campus. We listen to others and accept their opinions; therefore, when we don’t really think deeply about it, we are quick to shut down anyone who claims that listening and openness are not prevalent at Duke. However, if we dig a little deeper, it’s clear that my roommate is correct—there is an echo chamber present on our campus. We are surrounded in our classes and social circles by the liberal majority (which I am admittedly a part of). Of course we listen to the views of those around us; the vast majority of them express ideologies that confirm exactly what we believed in the first place, and so we accept them with open arms. We are quick to assume that we are just, fair, informed students, so of course we are open to hearing what others believe. But in reality, the vast majority of information and opinions that we are exposed to confirm our own beliefs, and so we are subconsciously more inclined to accept them.

During class discussions, I find myself deeply interested in others' viewpoints. The problem is, these viewpoints are almost all similar to my own. Rarely have I been in class and heard a conservative viewpoint expressed. We claim to be good listeners, but what is our response when the conservative minority on this campus expresses their views about topics that we vehemently disagree with? Had a more widespread conservative presence existed on campus throughout my four years here, I don’t know if we still would have considered ourselves as good listeners as we seem to think we are now.

It seems that we are not as open to listening and really analyzing opposing viewpoints because so many of us share the same viewpoint that we have become habituated to hearing and accepting the views that we already know and favor. It is interesting to consider, but what’s more important to think about is, what do we do about it? As I’ve said before, Duke’s campus is already brimming with all kinds of politically-based clubs that vary in their nature and ideology on the liberal-conservative spectrum, and we can’t approach Duke’s administration and tell them to ensure the class of 2022 is more ideologically diverse. The truth is that Duke has a liberal majority, who is mainly interested in hearing more about what others in the liberal majority think and how others’ views coincide with their own. The only way to combat this is to increase student exposure to opposing viewpoints. While opportunities exist to hear opposite viewpoints, these opportunities for exposure are usually on a voluntary basis—it is up to students whether or not they want to join politically diverse clubs. In Public Policy, Economics, Political Science, and other similar courses, professors should make a point to expose students to two or more different viewpoints and have students debate these viewpoints in a respectful manner.  Even though there may not be an equal distribution of ideologies on campus, it is important for students to understand opposing viewpoints, and that can be achieved with relative ease in the classroom should professors commit to addressing the need for increased listening on Duke’s campus.

Rachel Stand, President of Duke Listen First Project '16-'17
March 2017

We've Lost Our Ability to Listen

When I was in middle school, my teachers used to say: “Listen to me. Don’t just hear me; listen to me.” Hearing, they argued, is purely a physical act. It requires nothing more than being within earshot of speech. Listening, on the other hand, is absorbing words, and then processing them. It’s understanding them, and then analyzing them. It doesn’t necessarily require that you agree with what’s being said, but it does at least demand an eventual understanding of why you don’t. As with many wisdoms my teachers tried to impart upon me and my middle school classmates, this lesson fell on deaf ears. But as I reflect on a divided nation and a divided world, the hear/listen paradigm has resurfaced in my thoughts.

What makes our era so much different than those that came before? Partisanship and division have gripped American households and institutions with an intensity that has scarce precedent. Not for decades, or perhaps even centuries, has the country been so divided. Are the challenges of our time really so much more pernicious and alienating than those of the past? Sure, politics is naturally built on divisions. But it’s also naturally settled by reconciliation, and we have failed miserably at that.

We’ve become ideologically segregated. Modern media has created more options than ever for us to reinforce our own worldviews. We listen to our favorite radio host on the way to work, and we watch our preferred cable news when we get home. On Facebook, we defriend those who disagree with us – or we at least roll our eyes when they post. When we’re confronted with something we don’t like, we reflexively lash out. We double down, we entrench ourselves, and we recite our most battle-worn talking points.

In other words, we’ve lost our ability to listen. Yes, we hear those with whom we disagree. But our visceral reactions take over from there. When we don’t understand or accept another point of view, we don’t ask questions. We don’t engage in conversation. We don’t probe for common ground. We seek either submission or vengeance. We accuse and insult.

Democracy, as with all human endeavors, is imperfect. But that imperfection is not an excuse for ambivalence or complacency. Consensus building and compromise require real effort and difficult tradeoffs. We won’t always agree. Even with a common set of facts, no two people share the same set of values. But we should cherish the diversity of our values and seek to meld their strengths in our common pursuit of a more perfect union and a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Without trying to understand the different experiences that have shaped our disparate ways of life, we risk never-ending gridlock, stagnation, and in our darkest moments, even war. But if we can start with a shared sense of facts, and explain to one another why we react to and interpret those facts the way we do, we can heal our divisions.

And really, we have no choice. Our rapidly changing world has unsettled the fragile experiment we call the United States of America. But we cannot turn our heads and run. We cannot retreat to places of ideological comfort and reassurance. Together, we must boldly face the change in our world, and make sure that it’s change for the better. Our harmonious coexistence and continued well-being depend on it.

Ryan Kashtan
February 2017

LFP Essay Series: Lessons in Listening by Kemi Adeogoroye

Discussing Politics with Complete Strangers

In the aftermath of this election, it’s been heart-warming to see the calls from voices I admire for Americans to pull out the ear buds, get off Facebook, and, ya know, talk to each other again. What must follow is guidance as to how. How to approach someone whose views you know are not only different from your own but views you may actually feel threatened by, and ask questions with the intent to understand and not judge, and then respond. Let me clear here, I think views that are racist, sexist, homophobic, and/or xenophobic are unacceptable and I think spewing hatred at people who espouse such views will change things not one bit. Which is why, when a woman in a locker room (ironic location, no?) looked right at me and advocated extreme violence against fellow Americans, causing other women and myself to leave in discomfort, I paused, took a deep breath, went back in, and sat down next to her. 

Let me be clear also that I’m not for asking with doe eyes “Tell me more about your views that harm my sense of personal safety” and giving the speaker carte blanche to receive passive—though unintentional—endorsement from my attentiveness. While this may calm someone down as they will feel heard, it’s not discourse, which is what I think packs the punch (pardon the somewhat violent metaphor to drive the point, ‘melts the butter’ just did not work as well). This, after all, is called Listen First, not Listen Only.          

Sitting next to her, I said. “Hey, I heard you calling for violence, and I get it. Violence can sound nice when you’re scared and angry. But I think the way forward is respect and compassion.” She responded with more violent rhetoric implying the people who have views she disagrees with are not people. This is where I think we get into real trouble. I challenged her pointing out that the folks she disagrees with are also likely feeling scared and angry. This, gave her pause. Perhaps because it humanized her opposition. She interjected with slightly less violent statements, I tried to empathize with the emotion undergirding it, she felt heard, the wall came down slightly, and I was able to provide gentle redirection. This cycle happened a few more times until she and I were both nearly in tears from the vulnerability and discomfort we felt and fundamentally agreed on this: We don’t know the way forward from thinking half of Americans are bad people. 

As our conversation closed, she told me who she voted for and I told her who I voted for and we both leaned forward, asking the other to explain more. No digging in the heels, avoiding each other when we realized we disagreed, or looking to our phones for validation. At the end, she offered me some apples from her bag. Hoping there was no Snow White master plan in her head, I took them. 

Upon walking out of the locker room, I saw one of the women who had rushed out upon hearing the violent rhetoric. I asked her if she was OK and she was quick to attack the woman, “Oh that woman’s bat [poo] crazy, I try and never interact with her.” I calmly said, “Well, I think she’s just feeling lots of complex emotions like the rest of us are.” The woman shook her head, nope. So, pulling an apple out of my bag, I told the woman, “At the very least, she showed kindness.” The woman thoughtfully paused, and I thought I had just acquired the best ‘I’m such a good citizen’ story when she triumphantly resurfaced my Snow White fears and said “Make sure they’re not poisoned.” Sigh. At least she left some room for them to not be poisoned. 

Discussing politics with complete strangers as often as possible is messy, challenging, and doesn’t always end well. But, after trying to do it these past few weeks, I feel inspired at a time when I think many are not.

For more inspiration on the power of emotionally connecting with folks you disagree with, watch Sally Kohn’s TED talk.       

Andra Wilkinson, PhD
January 2017

LFP Essay Series: Lessons in Listening by Kemi Adeogoroye

Listening to Know our Fellow Citizens

On November 9th, 2016, while reading coverage of the election results, I came across a message by John Tasioulas, a politics and philosophy professor at King's College London. Tasioulas tweeted "One lesson common to #Brexit and #Trump: we don't know our fellow citizens. A dangerous place to be in a democracy." 
 
This statement illuminates an important point that has been overlooked during the 2016 election cycle—the idea that we don't actually know what our neighbors think, what they believe, or how they feel. If we did know our fellow citizens better, would we be so surprised by each new twist and turn during this election season? One of the only things Americans today seem to agree on is that there are significant divides within the United States, a real disconnect that separates us from our fellow citizens. Refusing to listen to and interact with people who share different views has shielded us from clashes of opinion and kept us in the dark as to each other's thoughts and concerns. Being kept in the dark, unaware of how large swaths of the population think and feel, has left many surprised each time a new political or social development has occurred.
 
The divide started when we stopped listening to each other. But the divide increased when we actively began to silence each other. People have spent time crafting isolated bubbles where they are surrounded by others who share their opinions and beliefs. Anyone outside the bubble is muted and considered to be an enemy, a stranger—someone not worthy of being understood, only of being condemned. Time and again over the last year, news outlets and social media platforms have displayed vicious and vehement attacks between people who dare to have a difference of opinion.
 
As a result, people responded by keeping their opinions close to the vest or choosing to go on the defensive, attacking opponents first and often not bothering to ask questions later. The entire 2016 election season, people regularly dismissed and vilified each other. I saw social media statuses declaring that "If you support _____, you should unfollow/unfriend me now" and that "People who support _____ are [insert insult of choice]." All I have seen are people utterly rejecting the opportunity to talk to others standing across the aisle, not even taking the time to respectfully ask why they were standing there in the first place. Rather, they assumed that their side was good/moral/right/smart while the other side was bad/evil/wrong/idiotic. No one group has been responsible for this; all have been guilty of at best dismissing and at worst demonizing the opposing side.
 
Refusing to understand not just why people think or feel a certain way but the fact that they feel that way at all is dangerous, particularly, as Professor Tasioulas said, for a democracy, where people vote on decisions that affect everyone.  When we shut down, block out, distance, mute, dismiss, invalidate, and deny others the right to express themselves; when we judge and vilify people for opinions that we don't fully understand, we only hurt ourselves. Shutting people out and shutting people up does no one any good. And it leaves individuals in the dark as to how large portions of society feel and think and why they feel and think a certain way. It's a real problem when you don't know your fellow citizens. And that problem started when we stopped listening to and silenced our fellow citizens.
 
The 2016 election cycle has revealed the cracks in our country, the stark dividing lines that are separating strangers, friends, and loved ones. The effects of these revelations will not disappear in the night, but will persist, so long as we continue to dismiss and deny each other the right to be heard. I don't want to be a part of that. I don't want to sit in my one-sided bubble or stay on my side of the aisle. I want to know my fellow citizens, I want to understand my neighbor, I want to do my part to help us learn and heal and grow, moving past the division of the last several months. So I'm reaching my hand across the aisle to listen and learn. Will you join me?

Kemi Adegoroye, LFP VP of Strategic Initiatives & CEO of 13 Roses Productions
November 2016

Listen First, Vote Second 2016

The below commentary was written by LFP Founder Pearce Godwin during the 2016 election calling on Americans to rise above the vitriol of the presidential campaign, one conversation at a time. The message was published in newspapers across the United States and accompanied a grassroots campaign earning thousands of LFP Pledge signatures. 

The 2016 campaign season has taken America to new lows of civility in discourse. Never has our national conversation been more poisoned by divisive and demagogic rhetoric. Never has our need to stop and listen to one another, especially to those with whom we disagree, been more apparent.

CNN reports that 78% of voters feel America is more deeply divided on major issues than it has been in the past. It’s only by listening to one another that we will bridge the divides that plague us, yet from candidates to voters, we’re failing to do so. The rancorous polarization now gripping American culture seems to have made listening an endangered practice.

The presidential campaign has been characterized by insolence among the candidates and a fomenting of fears, resentment and animosity among voters. As communities feeling marginalized on both sides of the political spectrum seek to be heard, there’s been a lot of shouting with too little listening, much less understanding. Social media feeds are littered with unbridled rage, while friends and family members are unable to exchange ideas without combusting. Political rallies have even turned violent.

Have we lost all sense of decency and sobriety in our discourse?

The interminable pictures of discord across the country are distressing, but they don’t tell the whole story. There is hope, even where you’d least expect it. Listen First Project partnered with Urban Confessional and The Listening Center to promote listening outside the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Our volunteers in Cleveland and Philadelphia found many people in those hyper political environments anxious to engage in respectful conversations, to be heard but also to listen.

Thousands of people across the country have signed the Listen First pledge this year – committing to fully listen to and consider another person’s views before sharing their own, prioritize respect and understanding in conversation, and encourage others to do the same. A Listen First Project poll found that 57 percent of voters believe that if people with different viewpoints listened to and considered the other side first it would make a major or even huge impact on our politics and society.

The restoration of civil discourse starts with each of us as individuals, one conversation at a time. When we begin listening to one another and expecting the same of our leaders, the tone will change. We can rise above the shameful vitriol and violence of the 2016 campaign. We can move beyond slander and seek common ground, with new respect and appreciation for the other side.

Regardless of which side you’re on, let’s commit to listen first, vote second this year. And let’s continue listening as new issues arise over the years to come.

We’ll be stronger together when we make America listen again.

Pearce Godwin, Founder and President of Listen First Project
October 2016

Health Policy: A Prescription for Listening

Salus populi suprema lex esto. These words declaring “the health of the people should be supreme law,” are engraved above majestic marble steps leading up to the Missouri State Capitol. Though I read these words many years ago, I still remember them filling me with awe as I prepared to meet elected leaders of my home state. Now, as a physician in the midst of an unwieldy, unaffordable health system and the debate over its reform, I return to these words to find direction and purpose.

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), state lawmakers have met under these words to debate health care policies such as insurance regulation and Medicaid expansion. And regretfully, like in many state capitals and in Washington, D.C., the heated monologues and dialogues have forged little compromise, much less any consensus. The rising cost of healthcare, physician shortages, and an increasingly older and chronically-ill population have driven a growing sense of scarcity in this country. But this hyper-intense focus on cost places us deeper in the same quagmire, as those with resources grow tired of shelling out for programs they view as charity with little return on investment. Until we also acknowledge the ethical and economic importance of human welfare as a public good, even the most well-designed policies will never become law or will be so altered by amendments or back-room deals that they miss their intended mark.
 
Instead of doubling down on well-worn talking points, the conversation needs to take a new direction focused on listening to each other. First, we must admit that leading healthy lives in this country is difficult. Long hours at desk jobs, food deserts, and an opiate addiction epidemic are just a few of the challenges the average American faces. And we all have a story of our own where medical care or an important medicine was forgone due to cost or inaccessibility. Second, we must acknowledge that responsibility for one’s illness or state of need should not preclude access to affordable life-saving or life-preserving care. In fact, the larger share of evidence suggests the punitive approach to policy or treatment creates more problems than it cures. And third, we must work to improve transitions of care at the end of life, which is much more about improving societal preparedness for death and dying rather than rationing care.

These principles are not meant to be prescriptive for improving health policy, but I believe they will lead us to greater awareness of our own humanity and fallibility, which is a sound starting point for a dialogue on improving health and healthcare. These principles also lend more dignity to the destitute, dependent, and dying. In fact, listening to their stories will create value through reinforcing equality and interdependence. Put simply, just societies are healthier societies. For example, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that income inequality confers a higher risk of mortality to all members of a society, not just the poor. And with all the concern about rising health insurance premiums, it is crucial to realize that insurance works best –and with lower cost—when risk pools are balanced with sick and non-sick. None of this is about charity; this is about recognizing that the health of our country is already inextricably tied to that of the marginalized. 

So let us challenge our lawmakers to listen more, de-politicize health, and drop the divisive language surrounding who deserves government assistance with healthcare. Let us also continue to hold government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and VA Hospitals accountable for the billions they receive and the millions they serve. And let the health of all people be our supreme law.

Sky Vanderburg, MD, MPH
September 2016

Listening First as a Catalyst for Action: Environmentalists and Farmers

As someone who works closely with both the environmental community and the agricultural community, I have to confess that there can be a heaping helping of skepticism between the groups. Let me start by painting a picture of both sides for you to understand.  

Farmers are in many ways the original environmentalists. As people whose livelihood depends on water, soil, and weather, farmers have a keen interest in stewarding the land for themselves and for the next generation. However, farming is hard work. Different than a factory that produces gadgets relatively untouched by factors outside of its control, the main factor that influences farming is the weather—intrinsically uncontrollable. And a farmer typically only has one shot to make money in a given year. One crop, one set of decisions in how to manage that crop in the best way to get the highest yields and feed a growing human population. If they do not get it right and leave yield on the table, they are forfeiting important profit that can be used to invest in their business the next year. In addition, growers are operating in an increasingly volatile agricultural economy. Growers want to steward their environmental and financial resources in the best possible way to stay in business, but it can be tough when operating in a biological system with so many unknowns.

The environmental community often only sees the environmental challenges associated with farming.  And they can be significant. Fertilizer is necessary for growing crops, but if it isn’t used properly, it can run-off the field as water pollution or volatilize into a potent greenhouse gas, 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The impacts of excess nutrients in the water are seen across the United States. When unused nutrients flood into waterway, they essentially fertilize the algae in the water rather than the crops they were intended for and cause algae blooms. In summer of 2014, the city of Toledo, Ohio had to shut down city water supplies due to a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie, the city’s water source. The algae was caused by phosphorus loading into the lake, and the toxins in the algae could cause nausea, vomiting and liver damage if ingested. Algae can also create low-oxygen regions in a water way, called “dead zones. A massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by nutrient loading into the Mississippi River creates large regions of the Gulf that are unfit for aquatic life. 

With the scene set, you can see why there may be skepticism between the groups. Environmentalists may believe that farmers are being careless with their nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, putting on more than they need or at the wrong time without care of the environmental concerns. And farmers may believe that environmentalists don’t understand the nuances of farming and that even the best management practices can lead to loss of nutrients from agriculture due to weather fluctuations and lack of predictability. 

But there is plenty of common ground if you commit to listening first. Farmers spend up to 50% of their operating expenses on fertilizer they apply to their farms, so fertilizer that leaves the field rather than going into the crop is wasted money. The agricultural community has a keen interest in protecting the nutrients they apply. Environmentalists want the same thing: less fertilizer leaving the field and more into the crops that feed and fuel our planet. 

At Environmental Defense Fund, where I work, we have seen the value of listening. When my colleagues and I first walk into agricultural audiences, we may be met with skepticism that we don’t understand their business—that we want to tell them how to farm or blame them for every problem. But after years of listening to the needs of growers, our message is instead one of common ground—let us work together toward creating farming operations that are more profitable and lead to improved environmental outcomes by keeping fertilizer you apply on the field rather than in the environment. This is a message we can all get behind. 

The win-win opportunity is a catalyst for rapid change, and you can only find these opportunities by listening first. When we start by listening rather than arguing, we can find the areas where combined resources can lead to the most impact. Rather than being stymied in lawsuits or never-ending fights, we can be actively working together towards a common goal.  Listening is a huge part of what I do in my job, and I encourage you to think about where your workplace could see rapid expansion in action and outcomes by challenging common stereotypes and meeting people where they are by listening first. 

Katie Anderson, Environmental Defense Fund
August 2016

Learning To Listen With an Open Mind

In order for listening to occur, there must be an initial stimulus. At present, we have more of these than ever before due to the rapidly increasing ability and ease of sharing and accessing information. While we are often able to quantify the decibels of the stimuli, it is significantly more difficult to evaluate listening, which we mostly see via echoes and reverberations.

The natural reaction to most everything we hear is to disagree or to say no. Think about it – if a random person approaches you and tries to ask you a question your default response is most likely “no.” This may be because you’re too busy, or because they might want something from you, or, even worse, they might want to challenge your opinion about something.

On multiple occasions I have been approached by people of faith who have wanted to share their beliefs with me. For most of my life when this has happened I have run as quickly as possible in the opposite direction. More recently, with the benefit of time on my hands, I have pushed myself to engage in conversations of this type and the result has been people praying for me, inviting me into their communities and to their events, and generally trying to share compassion and the joy of their own lives with me. Has it been worth my time? Hard to say. But my fear of proselytization was preventing me from interactions which have helped me understand fellow humans of widely varying beliefs and backgrounds.

When I was a senior at the University of North Carolina, I wrote a grant for a Fulbright scholarship to study the act of self-immolation in the Czech Republic during the Prague Spring. What fascinated me, beyond all else, was the lengths that certain people were willing to go to make sure their message was heard. Currently, in the United States, I believe we are at an important precipice whereby the country is extremely divided and people are increasingly weighing extreme options in order to gain attention, i.e. in order to feel like they are being listened to. At the same time, optimists and leaders from opposing sides see this as opportunity - a turning point bringing all of us closer to unity could be nigh.

I strongly believe that we can learn the most from the people we disagree with the most. Unfortunately, in today’s world of social media and increasingly self-selected tunnels of input, we too often surround ourselves with halos of reinforcement. Most dangerously, this can happen subconsciously, unbeknownst to ourselves. 

To listen with an open mind, we must seek to know ourselves and endeavor to identify our personal biases. Great power lies in the ability to make determinations between our own original thoughts and the thoughts of others that we invoke when establishing positions. Believing strongly in the words and ideas of others is an essential practice, forming the root of most modern educational systems, but it is also critically important to cite these sources and to avoid confusing them with original thought. Be it because of life experience, religious affiliation, or any other similar orientation, peoples’ thoughts are exponentially more interesting and insightful when consciously rooted in their ideologies.

At many times in my life I have been a terrible listener, which has harmed the credibility of my opinions and the quality of my relationships. Too often I have wanted to be a soloist rather than a member of the choir – listening only to hear my cue. But music – be it a chorus, or a symphony, or a rock band - should not simply consist of individual members playing their parts at the same time. Transcendent music of all genres can only be produced via the power of listening.

Ultimately, the best listeners are those who are willing to enter into all types of engagements with an open mind. This does not require a willingness to change ideologies, but instead a willingness to challenge one's own beliefs. Listening breakdowns too often occur because of fear. People worry that they will learn things that radically challenge ideas that they hold to be universally true, and this often offends their core values. Peoples’ world views are strongly influenced by the environments in which they have grown up – and because of this we must respect that there are few universal truths. There are simply too many nuances and perspectives on most issues that most of us are not privy to. This is one reason why travel of all types, across geographies and ideologies, is so important. And the latter type of travel frequently occurs in open, heartfelt, respectful discussion.

Hopefully we can learn to love people who think differently than we do. For me personally, this involves some of my closest friends and family members. I am fortunate to know so many intelligent, wonderful people with whom I often vehemently disagree. Not only do I respect them, I also respect their opinions, often because they have explained them to me from their own unique perspectives. The fact that I usually still do not agree with them after our conversation is inconsequential - because I always know them better for the dialogue that we shared. I am so grateful for these exchanges, in which I rarely ever feel threatened for attempting to listen with an open mind. 

In closing, I can't help but be thankful for the opportunities I have been afforded to surround myself with people with radically different viewpoints. One of the first instances in which that happened for me was at a publicly funded high-school summer enrichment program called North Carolina Governor’s School. I sincerely applaud and credit that institution and the many others that create safe fora for open, thoughtful disagreement and dialogue. I hope that you have come into contact with similar types of organizations and that you utilize them, share them with others and support them in order to challenge the critical issues our society is facing one conversation at a time.

Matt Ilinitch, Listen First Project Senior Advisor
July 2016

Hello? Can You Hear Me Now? 
Listening In: From the Perspective of An Actress

Listening is not a one-way street. It goes beyond what the ears can hear and requires much more from us than we can imagine. A listener takes on the responsibility of comprehending the material that is being shared to the best of their ability while maintaining a level of respect amongst the parties involved.

The concept of listening does not necessarily require a reaction or a response. For example, when someone is confiding in you about a situation, you may not always have the right words to say back, and that is okay. One should be able to listen with their heart which goes beyond the auditory sound entering their ear.

As an actress, I have to do a great deal of listening when I am performing. When I have fully immersed myself into the character, it is within my power to effectively convey the message of the story to the audience. In order to do so, I have to be able to listen to my cast and react beyond the words. Acting is more than the words on the page that I have memorized. It is a journey of discovery to find such motives and intentions of that character; motives and intentions that I have to find a connection with by listening to the surroundings of that character.  The listening occurs between my character and the audience, my character and the other characters in the show, and finally understanding my character from my director’s point of view.  

When performing a monologue, the listening that occurs is between my character in that scene and the audience. I am reciting words from the perspective of my character that I hope brings the audience some understanding within the story. Acting is all about storytelling; I remember a director telling me once before, “there is a conversation occurring between the actor and the character role; a conversation that only you can hear on the inside, but the audience needs to hear only one fluid story from you. Become one with your character.” My goal is to get into my zone and become solidly unified so that the only voice that the audience is listening to is the voice of my character. It is a relationship that I aim to successfully maintain throughout the run of the production. The audience may be moved by the words that they are hearing because they are listening and reacting with their hearts.

When I am connecting with the other actors onstage, we share the same responsibility to cohesively involve the audience into the story unfolding before their eyes. It is a conversation onstage and off stage that again requires listening from the heart. When actors take on specific roles, there are stages of character development and research of the piece that take place before hitting the stage. When I read a script, I listen in for the reasons why and how my character is the way they are based on their circumstances. How is my character viewed by the other characters? What is my character’s intention in bringing forth the story being told? With respect to the playwright’s vision, I make sure to listen to the interactions between my cast, so that we are able to effectively share the story with the audience. In a college production, I was told by a director that the real acting occurs in between the lines – some truth that I have always carried with me.

As an actress, I utilize the constructive criticism to further perfect my craft and based on the listening aspect, I am able to apply that information to my character. With that being said, there has to be open communication between the director and an actor in order to drive the story along. Everyone has to be on the same page, and as long as I am listening to what is being shared from my director’s standpoint, I am then able to connect and breathe life into my character.

Overall, listening is universal. It comes from within and should be respected from all viewpoints.
The audience can interpret the story unfolding before them if they understand what message is being conveyed. Listening is very powerful, and as an actress, it is rewarding to grasp the attention of the audience, communicate with other characters in the show, and externalize information received from the director.

Erica Philpot
June 2016

Forgiving, Listening & Learning

I was one of those annoying kids that questioned everything.  My parents had a hard time commanding me to do anything, because I would relentlessly question their commands.  At first, having to explain everything to me annoyed them.  

“Why do I have to bow to Auntie Funke?”

“Because you have to show that you respect her”

“Why do I respect her . . . I don’t even think I know her?”

If my parents were having a patient day with me, they would answer my questions. In this particular case, the answer was those who are older than me should be shown respect because they, as my elders, have experiences that I don’t have. It would behoove me to sit at their feet and learn from them. If I had simply obeyed my parents without questioning, I would have bowed and left. Instead, the act of questioning, listening and then learning allowed me to go from simple obedience to adaptive learning. I would no longer just bow but also greet them and make them feel as comfortable as I possibly could to show them my respect.  

Since then, I’ve tried to listen to different perspectives, so that I can gradually change and better myself. I spent most of my life trying to gain as many different perspectives as possible. In college, I majored in the Hard Sciences and minored in Humanities so that I understood the importance of knowledge in many forms. I’m from New York City but left to teach in the mountains of Lesotho, an extremely rural country in Southern Africa. I sought to learn the whole time.   

When I was younger, I thought I could ask questions of anyone and always walk away with a new thing to learn but my optimism waned. Over the years, I met so many people that seemed to dismiss the views of people they had never met. Gradually, I started listening less. I began to classify people: those who dismissed people and those who listened. If someone made generalizations about how a group of people should be treated or viewed, I believed that I couldn’t talk to them about anything important again. It seemed like a good idea at the time until it happened to me.

I was in a Middle Eastern studies class and we were talking about the ban on wearing burqas in France. As a class, we asked questions about the ruling and tried to understand the French government’s stance. We also tried to brainstorm better ways to handle the situation. Finally, frustrated with a problem that I didn’t completely understand, I just announced “Maybe, they shouldn’t be allowed to wear burqas, then less people would be persecuted for their religion!” There was an awkward pause and we moved on. I’m not sure when I realized that statement put me in my very own “dismissive” category, but I quickly realized that I was now classified among the close-minded section for many of my classmates.   

I don’t think I am a bad person. I strive to understand how other people feel and act accordingly so that I’m not hurting anyone. However at that moment, I didn’t listen or try to understand someone else’s perspective because it was just too difficult for me. Instead, I gave up and dismissed someone’s perspectives. I don’t think I’m unique in doing that once in a while. The important part is I eventually forgave myself and realized that I’m still learning. I also hope that the next time I say something offensive, my audience will forgive me enough to keep sharing their experiences. Once all is forgiven, we can move on with the listening and learning process.

Gloria Odusote
May 2016

Financial Regulation: An issue ripe for listening

Why should we talk about financial regulation?  It may seem to be a technocratic process that most of us can safely ignore.  It also requires real learning and effort to have an educated discussion about banks, broker-dealers, and asset managers and how the government oversees their operations and business.

Moreover, differing views about regulating financial institutions and markets often stem from differing views on fundamental issues of political and economic philosophy.  Questions of whether markets or political decision making do a better job of allocating resources and whether self-interest or disinterested expertise leads to better financial decisions lie at the heart of many regulatory debates.  The combination of complexity and deep philosophical division make it hard for non-specialists to participate in the discussion.

But the issues are so important that everyone’s participation is essential.  Financial regulation affects the rates we pay on credit cards, automobile loans and home mortgages, the way we save for educational expenses, retirement, and rainy days, and ultimately economic growth and job creation.  It matters to every one of us.

My starting assumption is that the decentralized decisions of individuals trying to provide for themselves and their families are imperfect—sometimes disastrously so—but still on average better than centralized decisions made by government agencies.  Others begin from the assumption that markets fail frequently and in ways that systematically disadvantage the less affluent and sophisticated, making government intervention a normatively and practically effective strategy.  Can people coming from these different places listen to one another constructively?

The critical starting point is to recognize that each shares the goal of making people, particularly the least sophisticated and politically connected, better off.  Regulatory skeptics like me should concede that there is a serious and important concern that too little intervention will systematically disadvantage small savers and investors.  Regulatory proponents should be willing to consider the possibility that well-meaning rules will have unintended consequences that may harm the very people they are intended to help.  Both sides should recognize that the other’s concerns stem from a coherent and good-faith account of the way the world works, even if they don’t share it.  Arguments premised on the notion that those who disagree have a hidden agenda are a decision not to listen.

Going from the general to the specific, it would be useful to focus on the relative, rather than absolute, need for regulation of different activities and institutions.  What problems are most worthy of government intervention and which are least worthy?  For example, I think we could get widespread agreement that a broker lying to a customer about a product she is selling is a bigger problem than a broker requiring customers to agree to arbitrate disputes rather than litigating them.  Some believe both practices should be the subject of government prohibition; others believe only the first should be; a few would argue that even the first can be left to the discipline of a competitive market.  But it is hard to argue that the second practice should be regulated while the first shouldn’t.  Although we will disagree on where we draw the line between government intervention and non-intervention, it is still useful to array the problems on a scale from most to least serious.  We might even discover that those generally skeptical of regulation and those generally in favor of it have a much larger area of consensus, both about what should be regulated and what shouldn’t be, than they may have assumed.

Paul Mahoney, Dean of University of Virginia School of Law
April 2016

African Listening: How it saved me from Kony's LRA

I love to listen because I feel it is the only way for me. 

I grew up in a small village of less than 800 households. I spent a majority of my time with my mother while my father was posted in a number of schools first as a teacher and then later as a head-teacher. It was never easy as we had to be patient not only with the missing necessities but also missing the presence of our father in the home. Our mother therefore played a big part in shaping up who we are today. We had to be attentive to every detail from her teaching, listening as she told us why our father was not always at home and why we should be able to work hard in his absence.

As we grew up then, I and my elder brother Jimmy Francis used to sneak out during holidays so we could be able to see our grandmother Norah Nek (RIP). As we spent some days and sometimes weeks with her, we had the pleasure to meet one of our mother's uncles, Ejenio, who taught us every evening using stories and riddles. Jimmy Francis and I were always very careful listening to every word as we took him to be having a lot of wisdom as an old man.

These three people always told us, "You can only judge well and make informed decisions when you listen to others.” They even said that whenever our father got back we should give him our attention so we can learn from him as much as possible. These advices gave us the opportunity to learn a lot about life and people and how to deal with daily challenges.

Throughout my life, I have learnt the value of listening as it has helped me work very well with others, stay in marriage without any problem, and above all deal with community challenges. 

Listening has even saved my life. It was a cloudy Thursday when I left Makerere University to go and attend my aunt’s funeral in Barr Sub-county of Lira district. Burial was scheduled for Saturday beginning 10:30am. A day before I left the university, there was rumor that Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army had crossed into the Acholi region and were headed towards Lango. My imagination was that the government troops would fight them back into Southern Sudan and we’d have a chance to burry Imat Milyeri Abwango without any hindrance. 

Everything changed when a passerby told us how the rebels were hurrying to abduct mourners at the burial place. My elder brother Jimmy Francis had to pass through the ambush only to survive abduction because the rebels wanted to loot medicine first before attacking anyone. A speeding vehicle hurrying to get out of danger saved us after we pleaded for help. We were lucky because the area councilor to the district local government was among us. Had the mourners not listened to the passerby who gave the news of LRA being near, many would have been abducted. 

It was because they listened that we escaped being abducted by Kony’s LRA that day!

Augustine Kezzy Okello, Founder of Keframa College in Lira, Uganda
March 2016

The Confederate Flag: A Black and White Issue

The Confederate Flag, its meaning and its symbolism has been a big topic of discussion recently in the U.S. Although the debate has been in and out of media throughout time, the recent removal of the flag from the South Carolina Capitol building has sparked deep emotion, protests, debates, and to say the least, a philosophical divide on race, historical symbols, and artifacts in the United States.

For centuries blacks across America have called for the removal of the flag that to them, symbolizes white supremacy, slavery and a history entrenched with the mistreatment of blacks. As a black man in America, my obvious inclination is to see ONLY that perspective of the flag. I mean how could I see anything else? However, a couple of weeks ago I engaged in a conversation with a colleague who I respect and whom I might add is white. Although I was well prepared to “preach my sermon” on the plight of the African American and how the flag screams racism, I found myself surprisingly in a very unique place. I found myself considering a different perspective, a different view and the possibility of what the flag could mean to someone other than a black person.

During this discussion, my colleague shared that as a white southerner born in the early 80s, his view of the flag was symbolic of southern pride and tradition.  To him, the flag was reminiscent of geographical esteem, southern hospitality and the land he loves. He explained that not once had the flag represented racism or slavery until it was pointed out to him by others. I began to explain the factual history of the flag, the Civil War and the use of the flag through the Jim Crow years as a form of racial intimidation of blacks. My colleague conceded that he could rightfully understand a black person’s view of the flag given the history of the South. However, he thought it was important to note that while that may be justifiably the symbol of the flag to blacks, understand that every white person wearing or waving the flag does not do so with racially motivated intent. To some the flag is purely a representation of southern pride. I marveled at how a flag, to me, had one meaning but meant something totally different to someone else. It was almost unbelievable, but seeing the conviction in how my colleague spoke of this symbol had me consider a new viewpoint.

Our conversation then went further to speak to the inherent bias we both have on race and the obvious perspective divide based on our life’s experiences. For me, my most salient identity and what guides my interactions in the world is my race, my blackness. In contrast, my colleague explained that rarely does he think or ever consider his whiteness and what that means as he navigates the world around him. Discovering that blunt distinction between my colleague and I regarding race offered insight to how some whites may look at a flag that, to me, carries such ugliness and while they only see southern pride and a history that should not be forgotten.

To say I walked away from the conversation with an overhaul in my perspective of the confederate flag would be an untrue statement. However, I did find myself attempting to see a perspective different from my own, which in turn lends itself to a non-antagonistic conversation where views were valued, respected and considered.

It is my belief that the conversation of race has to begin with a recognition of everyone’s own racial bias as well as recognition of our limitations in fully understanding what it means to be the race of another in the U.S. Despite our natural limitations, it should not preclude opportunities for people of all walks to STOP and LISTEN with the concerted intent to understand in order to fully engage in this conversation of race. And hopefully one day we will all truly understand that we are not much different from each other. We all desire the basic life fundamentals: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

Alan Jefferies, human resources professional and mentor
February 2016

Guns: More or Less, a Polarized Issue

President Obama has announced new executive orders to increase gun control in the wake of mass shooting tragedies across America. This is an incredibly challenging and contentious issue because we are unable to agree on the nature of the problem, never mind the solution. One side says the answer is more guns, while the other says the answer is less guns. It is hard for an issue to get more polarized or intractable than that.

Many of us have a bad habit of getting our news and information from sources in the same corner of the tribalized American political landscape in which we reside. New facts and reporting only confirm our predisposed notions of reality, credit and blame. Real factual context of an issue is often unknown or willfully ignored. Without a common understanding of the basic facts of a problem and shared goals in solving it, it is impossible to make progress. So let’s start by getting some facts on the table.

It is most often reported that guns kill roughly 33,000 Americans each year, but there’s more to the story. Underneath that topline statistic are different causes of death by firearm and trends pertinent to the gun debate. More than 60% of all gun deaths are suicide. A third of all firearm killings in 2013 were homicide, 11,208 deaths. Gun homicides have actually declined sharply over the past two decades, cut roughly in half around the 1990s. However, the decrease in gun murders over the past decade has closely coincided with an increasing rate of gun suicides.

A more complete understanding of gun death statistics partially reframes but does not necessarily diminish the problem at hand. Over half of all suicides are committed with a gun, and suicide is the second most common cause of death for Americans age 15 to 34. Studies indicate two reasons that guns are particularly dangerous as a suicide method: they are more lethal and more convenient than alternative methods. And while the revelation that only a third of all firearm deaths are homicide may defy common assumptions, we can all agree that more than 10,000 people being murdered by guns each year is still too many.

With a better understanding of the situation we face and a shared goal to reduce loss of life, all sides can turn toward potential solutions and consider each one alongside odds of efficacy, inherent trade-offs and the Constitution.

Our right to bear arms is a constitutional tenet of the American character and history, individual liberty, independence and self-protection. There are also other truths that are self-evident.  With the highest rate of gun ownership among developed countries (89 guns per 100 people, double that of second place Switzerland), the United States has by far the highest rate of gun murders (four times second place Switzerland). It doesn’t take an expert to recognize that more guns results in more gun deaths. Indeed, since the turn of the millennium, gun violence has killed more Americans than AIDS, illegal drug overdoses, wars and terrorism combined, roughly the same number as die in car crashes. While our character and Constitution, not to mention practical reality, make the idea of a gun-free America a fantasy, we can all agree that deaths from firearms should be reduced. And perhaps we can find mutually agreeable means of mitigating risks as we have regarding deaths on the roadways.

There are several proposals on the table worthy of sober consideration. These include more comprehensive background checks, both deeper and wider. Background checks could be deepened by including mental health records given that nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are by suicide and mental health problems are a major risk factor for suicide. Mental illness has also contributed to many of the mass shootings that have rocked the soul of America in recent years. Federal law prohibits anyone found to be a danger to self or others from buying a gun; however, studies show that many of these state records have not been reported to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Background checks are only as good as the data being checked to screen gun buyers.

Background checks could also widen to close the loopholes around gun show and online sales. By definition, loopholes are exceptions, perhaps flaws, in policies that seek to keep guns out of the wrong hands. As long as there are major loopholes in this effort, the entire purpose is fatally compromised. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 89% of Americans favored requiring the checks at gun shows and online.

It’s true that most criminals, by their nature behaving illegally, do not seek legal means of acquiring their weapons and therefore would not likely be deterred by stricter background checks. Estimates put the incidence of legally purchased guns being used to murder at under 10%. However, some of the wrong hands, particularly as it relates to suicide and mental illness, would be prevented from obtaining the means to kill by better background checks.

Another proposal, more popular with pro-gun advocates, flips the most obvious prescription on its head. This argument holds that the best way to stop bad guys with guns is to put more guns in the hands of the good guys. There is a certain practical logic to this view as many of us would have liked for a victim of the assaults in an Aurora theater or at the Christmas party in San Bernardino to stand up and eliminate the threats. However, this must be weighed against the inherent danger of additional guns on the streets.

The American public is closely divided on gun control with 51% opposing and 48% favoring stricter laws in a December CNN poll. I was encouraged to see the president discuss this emotional and contentious issue with people who disagree with him at a recent town hall meeting convened by CNN. Unfortunately, the polarizing and powerful National Rifle Association refused CNN’s invite to engage in the conversation, preferring to dig in, remain in their corner and preach to the choir instead. Perhaps one day both sides will take a step of good faith and goodwill in pursuit of our common goals.

When it comes to gun control and 2nd Amendment rights, along with all issues that threaten to polarize and cripple necessary discourse, let’s start by getting the facts straight, then identify shared goals and consider potential solutions together, respecting and balancing competing values. And at every step along the way, let’s listen first.

Pearce Godwin, Founder & President of Listen First Project
January 2016

Listening, a Richer Experience than Hearing

Very early on in life we are taught that "listening" is a passive activity. How many times have you heard the phrase "just listening?" As in, “No don't worry about it, I'm just listening to it.” The way we speak about it defines the word, or at least defines how we think about the word. When we minimize what listening is we display how little we think about it. 

I remember thinking that “hearing” and “listening” were interchangeable words. Even now it can be difficult for me to think of listening as an active word rather than simply the capability for the intake of sounds. At some point I began to consciously differentiate between "hearing" and "listening"; I began to understand that hearing was passive. 

Listening is the step beyond hearing: it is the step after the hearing when we begin to understand. In other words hearing is the intake of information and listening is the processing. When you view listening in this way you begin to comprehend that listening is really the way, the only way, that we can understand other people. 

I was lucky enough to grow up with all four of my grandparents and I was sixteen when my first grandparent died. Though it is been just over ten years I still regret conversations that I never got to hear and the experiences that he had in his life time that I will never understand. I think at that point in my life I was still only hearing. I didn’t understand that to truly listen you must be an active participant in the conversation. Even if people call me a good listener, it does not mean that I'm good at making opportunities to be a listener.

In other words, it is important to not just take those opportunities to listen when they arise, but to make sure that you actually have opportunities to listen. Whether this means talking to a beloved grandparent or reaching across the political aisle to recognize someone else's perspective—if you want to actually process additional information you have to make an opportunity to do so. 

Furthermore, once a conversation is happening, you have to be an active participant. I have been making an effort in the last couple years of my life to make sure that conversations are double-sided. This means that in conversations it is important to both speak and listen. I have to share my opinion and be willing to allow fellow participants to reciprocate with their opinions and information. Without asking questions and engaging the other, I'm not really listening to them. 

Making conversation and engaging others in this way can be difficult because you're putting yourself out there. At some basic level, you are admitting to your ignorance about something, and for some reason our society often makes that hard. Saying that I don't know something or I don't know how you feel about this thing, and asking you to explain it to me does not make me weaker. In fact, it gives me additional tools to understand better. From getting a greater understanding of my familial history, to embarking on an arbitration between two differing sides of an argument—we need information before we can proceed.

When you truly listen, the experiences of other people inform your own. Your experiences become more grounded in our shared reality. This is not to say that other people's experiences can replace your own. However, knowing you're not alone or knowing other people’s different experiences can only make your experiences richer.

Elaine Sylvester, student at the University of Virginia School of Law who spends her spare time writing a cooking blog, reading sci-fi novels, and binge watching action films
January 2016

Don't Raise Your Voice

I think I’ve had more conversations in my head with my father since his passing eighteen years ago than we had while he was alive. He was an educator by profession and an open minded moderate Republican, an early supporter of the rebirth of the Republican party in South Carolina in the 1950’s. We would have very heated discussions about social and political issues but he would always listen to me no matter how callow and silly some of my positions were. “Where do you get your facts?” he would often ask. Since he died there has been no one in my life with whom I can have the level of thoughtful debate and conversation we had and I sorely miss it. I’d give anything to know what he thought of the current Republican slate.
 
I flippantly say that I am somewhat to the right of Dennis Kucinich  and my younger brother is somewhat to the left of Attilla the Hun. For years we would have heated and loud arguments over politics, at times scaring the children when they were young. “Mommy, why are Daddy and Uncle Berkeley screaming at each other.” Needless to say not a lot was accomplished. Ten years ago during a particularly rancorous argument over the war in Iraq my brother stormed out and my Mother looked at me and said, “ You will never talk politics in my house again.”   And we haven’t, with the exception of the few times late in an evening when I would rise to his bait. 
 
Until this past Thanksgiving. In my frustration at my Father’s inability to speak to me from the grave and my grave concern over the state of political discourse I have begun a radio show on our local talk radio station WCHL called I’ll Grant You That, on which I speak with folks on the other side of the aisle and hopefully come to points of agreement. In preparing for the show mentally and emotionally I realized that the cardinal rule had to be- Don’t raise your voice. Once your voice is raised all listening and indeed all thinking ceases. Emotion takes over and we are either fighting or storming out the door. So after Thanksgiving dinner when my brother broached a political subject I took a deep breath and calmly replied. Every time he would raise his voice I would call him on it and what ensued was a forty five minute civil discussion of issues with nieces and nephews joining in. (I believe I am the only Democrat anyone in my family knows personally so I often feel like they see me as some kind of alien from the planet Blue.)

I find that not raising voices is almost magically transformative of discourse. Listening happens. And sometimes even thinking.

Berkeley Grimball, host of WCHL's ‘I’ll Grant You That'
January 2016

Listening First in Business and Politics

“Actions speak louder than words” and “think before you act.” This is sage advice that every one of our mothers gave us growing up. I will bet that we have used these expressions ourselves when giving counsel to others. These words of wisdom are encouraging the art of listening.

Throughout my business career as our company grew to a Fortune 500 corporation, I had the honor of interviewing hundreds of applicants. My goal in these sessions was to find the right people who would fit in with our culture and would have an opportunity for a great career. In addition, I always had the goal of making a friend. 

Most of us have been through interviews. There are the standard questions and answers. However, when an interview becomes a conversation, that’s when you begin the process of making a friend and perhaps finding a long time contributor to the mission of your business. How does that happen? By listening.

One of the most often-asked interview questions is “who is the most influential person in your life?” Standard answers cover Mom, Dad, Granddad, Jesus, etc. But I have also heard a stranger, a child, a very sick person, a quadriplegic, a teacher, a rich guy, a homeless man, a pastor and an ex-convict. Actually, the answers constitute a long list covering every aspect of society. When I’ve dug a little bit to find out why these individuals were so influential, it’s become clear that they have a common trait. I heard hundreds of times, “this person listened to me.” In other words, this person cared enough to listen.

The Listener is influential because they place the other person in a position of importance and value. By listening you say without words, “I care about your problem,” “I want to help,” “you are important,” “I want to understand what is on your mind,” and “let’s find common ground.”

Listening does not come easy. It takes a real commitment. I know first hand. I was once tasked with merging divisions in our organization. It was a great promotion and wonderful opportunity. I was on a mission. I was so intent on meeting our goals that I blew past the people I needed most. Fortunately for me, I was pulled aside by co-workers and reminded that I needed to be listening. Quite frankly, I was blinded by my promotion and felt that I knew best. But listening allows others to do what they do best. I regrouped and began listening once again. It led me to stop and respect the needs and concerns of others. The mood changed dramatically, and I restored the respect that I’d worked so hard to gain. New ideas and insights emerged, and we met our goals.

Today, I find myself seeking political office, to represent the people of North Carolina’s Second District in the United States Congress. This is the most exciting and humbling adventure of my life’s journey. The heart of our campaign is listening, being responsive, showing up and matching words with actions. This is a great definition of representation. Interestingly, I have been criticized by one of my opponents because I am listening to our citizens. Perhaps we should all remember this anonymous poem:

A wise old bird lived in an oak.
The more he saw the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we be like that wise old bird? 

YOU CAN---LISTEN FIRST.

Jim Duncan, Retired Fortune 500 Business Leader and Candidate for U.S. Congress from North Carolina’s 2nd District
December 2015

Intersections of Political and Religious Ideologies

I want to talk about conservative Christianity. This seems appropriate as we near Christmas and the Iowa caucuses, which are often won by the candidate who best resonates with evangelical Christian conservatives. I hope the following thoughts will break down some of our assumptions about each other's beliefs and encourage us to listen to one another before coming to conclusions about a person’s religious or political views.  

I first want to note an important distinction between the terms we use to describe conservative Christians and Christian conservatives. Christian conservatives are those people who have conservative political views and also happen to be Christians. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, are Christians who have theological views that are conservative. When Christians talk about conservative theological views, they are not using the term to identify particular political beliefs, even political beliefs that are driven by their religion. Instead, they use the term conservative to describe the way they form their beliefs about God. Although the term has a variety of implications, it is most often used to describe those who give more authority to the Bible’s descriptions of who God is than their own preferences of what God should be.

The populations of politically conservative Christians and theologically conservative Christians do significantly overlap, but not always. For example, I am a theologically conservative Christian who generally prefers liberal public policies. This is not an oxymoron. While the Bible does lay out a variety of values that should be present in how we Christians live our own lives and interact with others, it provides less guidance regarding questions of how we should, in a democratic society, leverage government policies to improve society. In fact, the political liberal and theological conservative share some specific values with political implications, including giving dignity to all people, regardless of how they might be marginalized, caring for our environment, and self-determination of beliefs. If only these two groups would take the time to listen to each other and gain a better appreciation for the other, they might succeed in finding more common ground.

Given that the politically liberal and theologically conservative positions are not irreconcilable, these groups should be able to have civil and productive conversations about politics. With this in mind, I would like to make some suggestions to help political liberals and theologically conservative Christians do just that, discuss politics in more productive ways, helping each side better understand the values and logic of the other. I do not mean for these few suggestions to limit dialogue, but simply offer ideas of places discussion may be directed toward more fertile ground for agreement and mutual understanding. While I address these thoughts to political liberals and conservative Christians, the two sides of my personal coin, I hope the advice will prove helpful to a broad audience.

First, seek to discover mutual goals. Even in the most heated and polarized debates, the political liberal and conservative Christian can often agree on certain principles. For example, in the abortion debate, both parties often share the goal of reducing unwanted pregnancies. By identifying this common goal, the political liberal and conservative Christian can engage in productive debate of more specific goals and policy from a shared foundation.

Second, seek to understand how the other person is balancing their own competing values. Similarly, seek to understand within your value system the multiple values you are balancing. For example, in the same-sex marriage debate, Christian conservatives arguing for limiting same-sex marriage might acknowledge that this could lead to the marginalization of a people group, and then wrestle with the question of whether a government mandate is the best way for them to balance their values of truth and grace.

Third, acknowledge the shared role of the church and government in solving societal problems. In the eyes of many Christians, the church is the best way to provide care for the poor, ill, elderly, and otherwise disadvantaged. These Christian conservatives cite government inefficiencies and failures to provide, and they believe that the church would be better able to serve if the government simply got out of the way. On the other hand, political liberals will often take the position that there will always be gaps in the ability of the church to care for others, particularly among non-Christian populations. Similarly, the two groups should consider areas where the church has a role but political action may not be required. For example, most Christians feel that the church has a role as a moral authority in encouraging monogamy and discouraging divorce, but at the same time are content with the government’s more hands-off approach to these issues. Are there other issues on which Christian conservatives have called for government action, but where the leveraging of the church's moral influence may be a more effective or appropriate tool?

Finally, I offer two points of advice directly to my Christian brethren. First, try to avoid using the Bible as your only argument for policy preferences. To do so is to exclude non-Christians from the conversation and to implicitly say to them that you have no points to offer unless they are willing to acknowledge the authority of the Bible. Second, as I've discussed, please be aware of the way you are using the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” I often hear from the pulpit that a “liberal” or “conservative” would interpret a passage one way or another. While the pastor does not necessarily mean these statements to have political implications, they can be easily misinterpreted without attention to context.

The case of conservative and liberal political versus religious ideologies is but one example of the challenge we face with language. In order to better listen to and consider another person's views, especially ones we disagree with, it is critical that we understand the context from which the person is speaking and the words they are using. If you have any question, ask in order to clarify understanding, then keep listening.

Scott Anderson, Lawyer and Bible Study Leader
December 2015

LFP Essay Series: Lessons in Listening by Kemi Adeogoroye

Lessons in Listening

“Listen to many, speak to a few.”
— William Shakespeare

When I was in college, I regularly had informal discussions with my friends on topics that ranged from silly to serious, hypothetical to real. We would go back and forth, expressing our opinions and challenging what we thought were the merits of the other person's arguments. These discussions were intriguing and stimulating. They were also sometimes tense and confrontational, especially if we ever broached sensitive political or social topics. In these moments I sometimes stayed silent, choosing to keep the peace rather than contribute an opinion that others might find unacceptable. As a result, these discussions sometimes seemed deficient, obstructed by a lack of proper communication and openness.

As time went on, I started to recognize patterns. It seemed that everyone wanted to be heard at the same time, everyone wanted to be understood. But no one was ready to listen. While we were never intentionally disrespectful or malicious, we did often put our need to be heard over our obligation to listen to each other. To try and understand why listening and communication were so difficult, I examined my own behavior first to determine how I was contributing to the lack of understanding.

I realized that I was not taking the time to truly listen to my friends. I too often placed more value on my opinion than on theirs. Instead of listening to what they had to add to the discussion, I would spend time formulating my rebuttals. I also let my preconceived notions about their stances on other topics influence how I interpreted their contributions to different debates. I knew I was not alone in doing so. We were all guilty of choosing to speak rather than to listen.

It wasn’t until I started law school that I began to truly grasp the concept and power of listening. People had always said law school would change the way I think but I hadn’t realized it would change the way I listen too. Suddenly I was forced by professors to switch sides mid-argument. I spent classes finding logical reasons for all kinds of different positions, from the most rational stances to the most ridiculous. As a result, I began seeing logical arguments in everything. I would go back and forth in my head as I read news stories, coming up with rational arguments for the behavior of all the parties involved. I discovered that two people could differ on a topic and both be right. I learned how to listen with intention, noting and responding to a speaker’s specific points, rather than to my ambiguous and ill-formed interpretations of what the person had said. Suddenly I could approach heated discussions with respect, objectivity, and a calm demeanor. Listening changed my entire thought process, a change I didn’t anticipate but wholly welcomed.

I like to think I’ve improved somewhat as a debater since the days of my late-night discussions in college. I try to take time with my answers and make sure I’m being as clear as possible, and I do my best to avoid making assumptions about what the other person means or will say based on their appearance, background, or other opinions.

The difference has been remarkable. Suddenly, my fiercest opponents don’t seem so foreign. I find that I agree more with people on specific points if not the overall picture. While listening is and always will be a learning process for me, it has changed my perspective for the better. That is why I felt compelled to join Listen First Project and why I wanted to write for the “Listen First Project Essay Series.” I am thrilled that this essay series will provide opportunities for other people from diverse backgrounds to share their experiences with listening as well.

Thank you for joining us on this journey, and I hope you enjoy the series as much as we will. Happy listening!

Kemi Adegoroye, LFP VP of Strategic Initiatives & CEO of 13 Roses Productions
November 2015

Listen First, Vote Second 2014

The below commentary, "Listen First, Vote Second," was written by LFP President Pearce Godwin during the 2014 midterm elections focusing on the most salient case of our failure to listen to those with whom we disagree, politics. It accompanied LFP’s grassroots and social media effort featuring campaign signs across the southeast. This award-winning piece was printed in major newspapers across the United States from the Miami Herald to the Oklahoman and featured in multiple news storiesIn recognition of the campaign, Pearce was honored to attend the Congressional Summit on Next Generation Leadership on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Is there any way to improve the tone of our national discourse, to alleviate the rancor that's gripping our politics and society? Voters believe the answer is simple: Listen first.

A recent poll of North Carolina voters by Listen First Project found that 57 percent believe that "if people with different viewpoints listened to and considered the other side first" it would make a major or huge impact on our politics and society. Only 6 percent believe it would have "no impact" on our culture. In the September NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll, voters were asked what one message they would like to send to politicians with their vote this year. The top open-ended response was "bipartisanship, work together, compromise."

It sounds so easy, and clearly the interest in positive change exists, but it can be a steep challenge for most of us. But we don't have a choice. If we hope for a healthy, prosperous nation, we cannot continue to demagogue our neighbors because they see the world differently, suggesting that not only their opinions but they themselves are somehow less. That's not who we aspire to be as an American people, as a "city on a hill" for the world to see.

Listen First Project has launched the Listen First, Vote Second campaign around this midterm election season. We have yard signs across the state mixed in with the ubiquitous red and blue candidate signs that we're all used to seeing this time of year. The #ListenFirstVoteSecond message is spreading on social media as well. We're promoting this message with the belief that the greatest societal change begins with the people, at the grassroots level. Our political leaders take cues from us.

Every election season, and most every day in the modern political and technological climate, we're reminded of the issues that divide us. And that's OK. The United States is made better by passionate and vigorous debate on issues that shape our nation. We will never and should never all agree on everything, but that doesn't mean the status quo can't change. We can move beyond slander and seek common ground, with a new respect and appreciation for the other side.

While politics, especially during election season, provides the starkest example of our failure to listen to one another, it's far from the only arena in which we face this challenge. Our failure to listen is affecting our relationships and productivity at every level, from the kitchen table and classroom all the way to Congress and the United Nations.

We're all culpable, and we're all responsible for change. It starts with me. It starts with you. Let's make a new commitment to fully listen to and consider another person's views before sharing our own, prioritize respect and understanding in conversation and encourage others to do the same.

This election year Listen First, Vote Second.

Pearce Godwin, Founder & President of Listen First Project
October 2014

This award-winning commentary, written in August 2013, appeared in more than a dozen newspapers across the country.

Tolerance and Understanding Lacking in Gay Marriage Discussion

Gay marriage. How did reading those two words make you feel?  If you're like most Americans, you had a strong emotional reaction, positive or negative.

Gay marriage is an issue that has been grabbing headlines and inciting passions across the country over the last several years. The debate has consumed conversation and even chicken sandwiches. National public sentiment on gay marriage has moved from rejection towards acceptance at an unprecedented rate and shows no signs of slowing. This rapid evolution has inspired both sides to fight harder as those in favor gain new hope and momentum while those opposed dig in.

In 1996, only 27% of Americans favored gay marriage according to Gallup. Today, double that share (55%) are in favor, according to the poll. The tipping point to majority support in polling was crossed in 2010. Thirteen states and DC have legalized gay marriage while it was victorious at the ballot box for the first time in 2012, when voters, rather than courts or legislatures, in Maine, Maryland and Washington legalized the practice.  More than any other major issue, beliefs on gay marriage are generational, due in large part to younger people having more familiarity with homosexuals and their desire for marriage equality, ascribing faces of friends to a difficult debate. Generational turnover as well as people of all ages becoming more accepting of gay marriage explains the dramatic and ongoing shift in public opinion.

You're likely having an emotional reaction to those facts as well depending on your personal beliefs. But let's take a moment to check our emotions and allow for a sober and fair look at both sides of the most contentious social issue of our time.

Begin by accepting that there are good, genuine, well-meaning people on both sides. Generally, those in favor of gay marriage are not trying to upend the moral fabric of America nor are those opposed attempting to impose bigoted views on everyone else. Gay marriage is a battle between differing moral codes and world views. Therein lies the fundamental problem.

When a Duke fan and a Carolina fan meet in a bar, they will disagree vehemently regarding the supremacy of their respective shade of blue, but they are speaking the same language and can understand the values and metrics the other is bringing to bear on the debate. Not so with gay marriage.

Folks in the gay marriage debate often talk past each other, invoking concepts that, to the other side, ring hollow and may even sound ridiculous. What does a non-Christian care what the Bible says? How is one who sees gay marriage as counter to their religious-moral code to understand an analogy to the civil rights movement?

Opponents of gay marriage in America most frequently base their view on morality derived from Christian teaching and interpretation of the Bible, considered the word of God. Without getting into a theological discussion, suffice it to say the Bible does contain verses easily interpreted as against homosexual acts. It also commands loving our neighbor and warns against being judgmental of others. While some opponents have unfortunately come across as less than loving over the course of this debate, their core belief is typically genuine and seen by them as being best for society, the family and individuals, not a belief born out of hatred or bigotry.

Proponents of gay marriage generally see the issue as a no-brainer, black and white, open and shut case of basic equality and human rights. They are miffed that it's a debate at all and can't understand what all of the fuss is about. As the slogan goes, love=love, and why should two men or two women who are in love and committed to each other not have the very same rights and benefits as a heterosexual couple?

Morality versus equality. Religion versus rights. These dichotomies have unsurprisingly proved intractable, which leads me to two conclusions.

Respect is grossly lacking and must be restored around the gay marriage debate. Proponents have been looked down upon and judged by some who preach love on Sundays while opponents have been called backwards bigots by some of the very people demanding tolerance.   Religion, morality, love and justice are powerful values deeply held and worthy of respect. If you cannot engage in an impassioned debate without resulting to demagoguery, perhaps you should excuse yourself from the discussion.

The two sides will never fully see eye to eye. Their world views are too different. This is why we are all so fortunate to live in a democracy. All people should take their genuine beliefs on gay marriage to the voting booth without reproach. And all people should accept the outcome as democratically just, win or lose, until the next vote.

Gay marriage will be settled one day. In the mean time, let's not lose friends and offend our neighbors with a lack of respect and tolerance for differing viewpoints.

Pearce Godwin, Founder & President of Listen First Project
August 2013

The below commentary was written by LFP Founder Pearce Godwin in July 2013 while in Africa. It has been printed in dozens of major newspapers across the United States reaching millions of readers. Listen First Project was born from a desire to turn these words into action and make a tangible impact on our society, one conversation at a time.

It's Time to Listen

It's 3:30 AM, and I'm on a bus between Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya, before returning home to the USA. As I bump along the Kenyan countryside under the night sky, I'm troubled by the political rancor I'll be stepping back into.

I personally have strong moral convictions on a host of issues, but what we should not and cannot do if we hope for a healthy, prosperous nation is demagogue our neighbors because they see the world differently, suggesting that not only their opinion but they themselves are somehow less. Such behavior is immature, anti-social and un-American.

Vitriol aimed at the other side is both unproductive and self defeating. Politics is not the central battleground between good and evil. I believe there are black and white issues, principled issues worth fighting for, but these are the exception not the rule. There is an awful lot of grey area in public policy ripe for negotiation and compromise.

Today the parties behave like every issue is an existential threat and their last stand. Elections are a competition; legislating should be a more collective and bipartisan effort toward positive action on behalf of an American people who expect sensible and productive representation.

Rather than looking at our dysfunctional political governing system with the scorn and incredulity that it deserves, many of us dive into the cesspool head first and carry the torch of division and demagoguery to Main Street. We've successfully created a country of warring factions, and it's ripping America apart at the seams. When it takes foreign terrorists slaughtering thousands of our neighbors to unite us, something is horribly wrong.

Now, for my humble prescription: listen. That's it, listen. I borrowed the idea from God because He's smarter than I am. "Be quick to listen, slow to speak."

I believe we have a moral responsibility to listen and gain an understanding of the other side's position. What good is it to hold fiercely to a position that we've not bothered to weigh or pressure test against divergent perspectives. Too often we engage in mutual reinforcement parties with friends of like mind. We call this pervasive American practice confirmation bias. Technology has allowed such complete fracturing of the information pipeline that most Americans are hearing exactly what they want to hear from people just like them without ever having their ideas questioned or challenged. Not only do we have our own opinions; now we have our own facts. This is dangerous.

What if we turned off our favored news source, sat down with someone of a different, fresh perspective and listened, leaving as much bias and prejudice as humanly possible at the door? Then imagine if your new good practice were adopted on park benches across America, in school cafeterias and yes, even in the halls of Congress. 

While we'd still hold different, even competing, views, we'd be able to move beyond slander and seek common ground, each with a newfound appreciation and respect for the other side. It's too easy to step up on our high horse and rant until the cows come home, sometimes it's even fun, but it's destructive, and one by one we need to change.

The sun is now rising over Nairobi. It's time for a new day in America as well. It's time to listen.

Pearce Godwin, Founder & President of Listen First Project
July 2013