Friday, October 2, 2020

How Listening Helps Talking in Divisive Political Climates


      As our presidential election draws near in what has become a very divisive political climate, we may find ourselves spending more time reading posts on social media and viewing news programs, both of which tend to present polarized views.  This polarization can affect how we think and talk about political issues.  How do we talk to family and friends who may have different political views without harming those relationships?  The answer may well be found in research associated with conflict resolution.  This research finds that conversations about political issues can become argumentative or emotionally charged. An effective communication strategy is to identify your listening purpose. Listening purposes include critical listening, listening for understanding, empathetic listening, and listening for enjoyment.  Our choice of listening purpose influences what we listen for, how we interpret information, and how we respond.  In most conversations involving political or social issues, our listening choices tend to be critical.

    In political conversations, critical listening provides one the opportunity to construct counterarguments and rebuttals in support of one’s position or opinion.  This listening purpose may produce a victor but does little to make the conversation comfortable for all participants, especially family and friends. Listening critically also contributes to the potential of a conversation spiraling into a serial argument. Over time, these patterns can erode positivity in relationships.

Listening to understand, on the other hand, allows participants in the conversation to possibly find common ground, even if they disagree about candidates or issues.  This purpose requires one to paraphrase what was heard and to ask questions for clarification of position and underlying interests. An example is asking what the most valuable quality in a chosen candidate looks like to the other person. A follow-up question could be asking what we expect someone with that quality to do as a leader. Listening to understand shows family and friends that you have an interest their views. It also can set a pattern of reciprocity for the conversation in which listening to understand becomes a focus for both people as they take turns.

We do find ourselves living in and coping with a divisive political climate.  However, that does not mean that our political conversations have to be divisive.  In conversations with family and friends, there should be an expectation of being heard with respect, albeit sometimes without agreement. When we have a listening purpose to understand, that expectation is better realized.


Gwen A. Hullman, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at Ashland University. She studies conflict resolution and health communication, and has served as a volunteer mediator for several years.

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