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