by Karen Bufka
Listening takes courage. Think about it: in order to listen, you have to be quiet and, to some extent, still. This can go against the messages of our biology, especially when the person you are listening to is saying something that challenges your worldview.
When I was the local organizer here in the NEK for the League of Women Voters, a national, nonpartisan volunteer organization which encourages the active and informed participation of citizens in government, I attended the League’s New England Leadership conference, in which different presenters educated us on topics relevant to our work. One spoke about the issue of simply getting people who don’t vote, for whatever reason, to begin to vote. What they said shocked me, but I think of it often and it always helps me to navigate life.
Their simple but profound thesis is: our biology does not distinguish between the challenge of a bear or the challenge of an idea.
If our biology perceives a threat, even if it is just a threat to our sense of ourselves and our worldview, it responds the same way, by taking us out of our frontal lobe where we can engage in nuanced, rational thinking, and placing us in our survival brain, where we engage in either/or thinking, the either/or being stand and fight or run like hell.
It was shocking to me when the professor said that for some people, having another person question the worldview which makes them choose not to vote is enough to make them go into survival mode. If humans can go into fight or flight mode because of talking about registering to vote and filling out a ballot— not even about what they are voting on— then we can go into fight or flight mode about pretty much anything.
So why am I sharing this information? Because we need to be able to have conversations about the many issues facing us today. We need everyone’s voice. We cannot afford to indulge in polarization, which by its very nature shows us that we are not in our frontal lobes, but engaging in either/or survival thinking. Each of us needs to have everyday courage to listen to the best of our ability—every single day.
We need to be the one who is willing to set the tone for any conversation by listening, by courageously holding steady even in the face of ideas which are as scary to us as a bear. We need to monitor ourselves and have the humility to admit when an idea which seems really small, more of a mouse than a bear, affects us emotionally as if is were a bear. This is not easy to do, or more people would be doing it! The easy red flag is if you get emotional. Do you want to interrupt, to fight? Or do you want to end the conversation, to flee?
One way to help ourselves muster the everyday courage needed to hear others’ points of view is by being generous. It is by treating the person whose ideas you are encountering not just according to the Golden Rule, but even better. It helps to remember how precious they are. There is no one else in the world exactly like them, and never will be again and they are taking time from the limited supply of moments in their life and breaths from the finite number of breaths which they will breathe in their life— to share something with you. They are being generous, even if they don’t know it, so you can be generous, too.
The person you are courageously listening to is sharing something which it has taken them their whole life to be able to express. Every moment in their life has led them to their moment with you, so what they have to say is the product of their whole life. Who are you to invalidate the path that has led them to the understanding they have in this moment and the expression which arises out of it? Be curious instead.
You are both exactly equal. We can each choose to be generous, and humble, and have the courage to listen. This will change our world.
The author is a St. Johnsbury resident.