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

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

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

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