Listening To the Other Side

Deborah Venable



What makes America work?  It’s a simple enough question, but the answer is anything but simple, because it involves a much deeper thought process than most human societies have ever been able to master.  I maintain that America has always “worked” because there are two sides to every story and both sides get a public airing.  Who can honestly disagree with that simple assessment?


I worked for many years, almost two decades, as a training consultant with a very specific skill.  I was trained to sit in a group of people conducting a meeting or negotiation and keep track of each individual’s verbal behavior, then tabulate the results and feedback statistics in a group seminar environment.  The verbal behaviors were categorized into a descriptive list of some fifteen or so different definitions.  Every time the participants opened their mouths what they had to say fit into one of these definitions, so I tracked the number of times they used the behaviors and also captured key examples verbatim to feed back to them during open feedback sessions.  If two or more people talked at the same time, they all got categorized and counted separately.  Needless to say, this job taught me a lot.


The identifier for people talking over one another was called a “shut out.”  Of course, in order to earn a shut out, what the person had to say also had to fit into another category.  The most general of these categories was called, “giving information.”  Some of the other categories included, making a “proposal,” or a “counter-proposal,” asking a question via “seeking information” or more specifically “testing understanding,” which also took the form of a question.  There were “irritators,” “argument dilution,” (“giving reasons” in excess), “attacks,” and other very specific categories. 


When participants were asked to evaluate the training programs at the end of the seminars, the behavioral observers, (my official job title) were given high marks in effectiveness for the participants’ learning process.  The feedback sessions opened their eyes to behaviors that many were totally unaware of, or they were unaware that such behaviors carried the potential for negative results.  Most of them also learned to listen to each other by the end of the seminar.  Shut outs were a big thing, and most people did not even realize they were doing it.  Those who had very little to say also realized how ineffective that behavior could be.


What really makes America work is the unhampered ability to learn the give and take in human verbal interactions.  More commonly called, freedom of speech, this ability is what has always set us apart from tyrannical societies.  Perhaps the most important part of verbal interactions is the ability, not just to speak, but especially to listen to what the other side is saying.  If we cannot or will not do that, anything we have to say has much less value. 


As we watch the infamous town hall meetings taking place across the country now, one phrase is repeated over and over again.  “You are not listening to us,” the people are saying to their congressional representatives.  We already know what the representatives have to say because they are the ones with the daily access to microphones and the bully pulpit – not to mention the ability to craft the legislation that we will have to live by.  But when they hear our dissent to what they have to say, they are not listening and taking in the reasons for that dissent.  Instead, they throw out ridicule and personal attacks.  Those who back their plans carry their water willingly and refuse to take their “other side” seriously. 


The companies that I worked for spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to train their employees, CEOs, multi-million dollar budget managers, negotiators, and personnel managers to listen and effectively speak to their opposition.  It is training that would be well worthwhile for each and every American.  (I even found the techniques very useful in raising my children.)  Responding, not reacting, is the successful way to valuable interpersonal human relations, and you cannot effectively respond until you have listened to the other side. 


The president made headlines when he said in effect that he did not want to listen to dissenters to his plans.  Indeed, he is careful to stack his town halls with supporters instead of dissenters, and his minions in government and the media have employed the ridicule and personal attack tools of tyrannical societies in answering the people’s legitimate dissent.  How long America can go on “working” in this environment is anybody’s guess at this point.  At the present, it seems as if they really expect their “shut out” techniques to carry the day.


After carefully listening to the other side from my point of view, I have come to the conclusion that they honestly want change from a free, individualist society to a regulated, structured, collective one.  They fear having to be solely responsible for themselves and their families, they fear being seen as uncompassionate or intolerant of government power, and they have great hope for the direction a liberal leaning government policy will take in the way Americans view themselves and other nations view Americans.  What they do not understand because they will not listen to us is that the government they are putting their faith into only cares about one thing – all the power they can acquire for as long as they can hold it.  The signs are all there.  Great thinkers of the past and present have identified the danger with historical facts. 


Just take a look at all the legislation, court decisions, and executive orders that have been achieved based on a “shut out” philosophy.  Talking over others and walking on others’ rights is not the way America works, folks.  It is as simple as that.



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