Dialogue of the Deaf

If I were to suggest just one word which we should use more often this year, it would be “listen”. It’s one of those quiet words which contrasts with the words that defined last year, the shouts and roars, the bray and bluster. Listening is hard when the sounds around us grow mean and ugly.

Listening takes particular courage in divisive times. As we distance ourselves from each other, we shout to be heard across the divide. After a while, this grows tiresome, and so we just stop talking to each other altogether. In a perverse way, listening becomes a form of subversion, a rebellion against the tribe. And so we stop.

We saw it on TV when Moira Delia stormed out of a debate when a zookeeper continuously interrupted her. We’ve seen it in Parliament ─ called the country’s highest institution by some ─ when none other than the Speaker walked out of a committee meeting because of great disorder.

Among the most destructive trends of recent years has been a breakdown in our ability to debate and reason with others with whom we disagree.

The term du jour “tribalism” replaced the earlier “polarisation” precisely to capture the added aggravation of animosity that has made even conversation across partisan divides difficult. Mistrust and hostility have been grafted onto divergence about ideas.

We do not know exactly how widespread the phenomenon is. Some see it shared broadly across Maltese society, while others believe it is confined to the activist groups. The difference hardly matters, because the disease seems to be spreading awfully fast. Either way, the take-no-prisoners approach to debate threatens the future of democracy, which takes disagreement as a datum and depends on willingness to work through and across differences from a sense of shared community.

The latest instance of this is the PN’s submission of an omnibus bill seeking to implement the conclusions of the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry. The Government dismissed it as an electoral gimmick, denuding the effort of any value, even though it implicitly conceded that it had one intrinsic value concerning the introduction of anti-SLAPP legislation, for which it claimed kudos.

Hostility to the very act of listening is growing. In politically-fraught conversations, we may keep listening but stop hearing once our settled views are challenged. Just giving people more information, whether about FATF grey-listing or corruption or vaccines, does not pave a road to common ground; if anything, the opposite is true. Partisanship disrupts understanding, blocks reasoning, exalts loyalty over logic.

Partisanship disrupts understanding, blocks reasoning, exalts loyalty over logic.

Plenty of studies have examined this phenomenon. Though listening is the essence of most of our communications ─ the average adult listens nearly twice as much as he or she talks ─ most people are abysmal at it. Here’s one typical result. In a U.S. study, test takers were asked to sit through a ten-minute oral presentation and, later, to describe its content. Half of adults couldn’t do it even moments after the talk, and forty-eight hours later, fully 75% of listeners couldn’t recall the subject matter at all.

Here’s the problem:  Cognitive psychologists say that the human brain has the capacity to digest as much as 400 words per minute of information. But even a speaker from Xgħajra talks at around 125 words per minute. That means three-quarters of his brain could very well be doing something else while someone is speaking to him.

Doug Elmendorf, the dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says that civil discourse includes wrestling with ideas we find disturbing, and then debating, honestly and rigorously, policy proposals that weigh values differently. “Courage is not just about standing up for what you believe,” Elmendorf tells students. “Sometimes courage is about sitting down and listening to what you may not initially believe.”

By now, I think you see the problem. Your brain is hungry for information, like a golden retriever puppy is hungry to chase a tennis ball.  Important information, however, rarely comes as fast as your brain can take it, just as you can never toss the ball fast enough for your puppy. At the dog park at Ta’ Qali, your beagle Ġiġi won’t be able to resist if someone else nearby throws a ball … off he bounds, chasing after whatever is moving. And similarly your brain, thirsty for data, with a whole bunch of seemingly spare time on its hands, can’t resist the ping of a text message or the temptation of looking at YouTube videos of Zija TT u Belle.

The risk in not listening properly should be obvious. You might start out with all intention of focusing on your boss, or the useless sales presentation, or your wife’s frustrating work story. But soon, you hear the word “goal” on tv and what Ronaldo has just done becomes all-consuming. You notice that the woman across the room has coloured her hair. You see a tile on the floor that is cracked. You are tempted by the false god of multi-tasking. And you are lost.

We all agree distractions can have devastating consequences. And yet, when it comes to distractions, we are our own worst enemy. To borrow a phrase, when you’re going the wrong direction, you should at least take your foot off the gas pedal. Listening is one way to do that.

Which is not to say that if we all just listened more, our conflicts end. Nor does it mean abandoning our values. “It’s always wise to seek the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth,” theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said. Listening attentively to an opposing view deepens our insight and sharpens our arguments ─ especially in public life, as we figure out what a wise public governance policy might look like, or the smart balance between our values and our interests on irregular immigration.

A real-life example could be New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, for one. She has been lauded for her demonstration of empathy and understanding of complex, emotionally charged issues that some others reduce to glib slogans.

How is it that the New Zealand prime minister is such a good speaker? It’s because she is a good listener. Understanding and empathy, so lacking in much political discussion and debate, don’t come from being a good talker. They come from active listening. Policy, yes. Leadership, yes. But not a blustering style of leadership focused on self-aggrandisement and beating the opposition – a style of political discourse to which we are all too accustomed.

Leadership studies emphasise empathy. Princess Diana had it. Nelson Mandela had it. That did not make them weak. To the contrary, it made them strong and able to effect change.

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