Bufka: The courage to listen

Photo by Dani Hart

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.

Categories: Commentary

9 replies »

  1. In February of 2022, I wrote a commentary for VDC called “Coming In From the Left”, in which I described my (painful) shift towards the right, something I never expected myself to be doing. What I concluded, for myself, which enabled the shift, and as my best advice in general, was that LISTENING, especially to “the Other” was the key to understanding and peace, the only thing that could really radically change division and even avoid war.

    This Commentary by Karen is a perfect follow-up to what I was saying. It gets into the actual act of listening as such a critical part of communicating, to describe how and why it is so important and works so well. As she says, and as I’ve experienced, it’s not always easy, but the outcomes to the listener can be very rewarding and can even be life-changing, mind-opening, and spiritually-freeing.

    Bravo and thank you, Karen!

  2. Excellent analysis, Karen! As always, done with a calm mind, and sensitivity.

  3. Critical thinking is a skill removed from modern society and education. A segment of society is lulled into “do not question” anything – especially the approved narrative handed down by the Masters. Hence, the desecration and removal of historial facts and twisting common law whichever way to control and subvert. The smart phone made society ignorant and lazy. Now we have Chatgpt which will write your term papers, your sermons, diagnose your ailment, and make people even more ignorant and lazy. Be aware the plan is to “rewrite” the Bible using AI. When certain educated idiots (as my grandfather loved to say) learn to surpress their arrogence and egos enough to listen to common sense or a different point of view, we may get somewhere better than here. Until then, the war is real and God is likely the only way to change the plan to destroy mankind.

    • Spot on Ms. Casey. I was replying at the same time you were and in the same vein.

  4. Listening intensively and intentionally is indeed hard work. Most listen with “their answer running”. Meaning of course that they are just waiting for you to stop so that they can start talking.
    There are a couple of things I would like to weigh in on Ms. Bufka. Your article is well written and clearly compassionate. Indeed, your main point that people often stop using their logic and rationality when confronted or frightened is a biological fact and was demonstrated by nearly every person in this country back in March of 2020.
    However, we are not “both exactly equal”. I am not your equal and you are not mine. Indeed, it is by virtue of “every moment in their life has led them to their moment with you” which makes us unequal. We have equal value and worth as human beings, but that doesn’t make us equal. I have many failings and deficits and many strengths and virtues which you may or may not possess. We are not equal. We are different and it is the difference which makes us important to each other. We need each other to be balanced and whole. The Yin and the Yang if you will.
    I think your paragraph about being more in tune with your emotions is crucial to any conversation or relationship. And yet so many people are completely unaware of this fact or how to even recognize it. That is the more important point. Self-awareness. Not many folks have that capacity. It is too difficult to be self-aware. It means accepting that you may be wrong, you may have to apologize or change your thinking and possibly your life.
    I fear we as a people (more than just a country) will never achieve the type of communication you espouse unless we go through a significant trial by fire, as a people. Because we have walked away from God and let our ego’s take over. That’s when you know you will never communicate effectively. I am speaking of myself as much as I am speaking of others. When your ego is in charge, your ears are closed. When your ego is in charge, you have walked away from God.

  5. Ms. Bufka’s point about listening is well received, and introspection/self-awareness is a virtue, but…

    As much as we’re told we “need to have a conversation”, only one side is doing all the talking. Whoever tries to express an opposing point of view is called a hater, racist, or any of various *phobes, or censored, shadow-banned, fired, libeled, and otherwise canceled from civic and commercial society. As a result, we have a divided electorate with media a willing and partisan enabler of disseminating “disinformation” from their chosen “experts” while omitting/ignoring others, not fair or balanced. Case in point: Glaring omission of each new release of verifiable evidence of the Biden crime family bribes, money laundering, influence peddling/treason, and more, inserting instead 24/7 coverage by the mockingbird media of a new indictment on Trump, based not on evidence but on allegations and association. Local tv affiliates and newspapers are among the worst offenders.

    It’s not so much I desire to make anyone conform to my ideas, but you do not have the right to tell me what is fact or truth and what isn’t, or what I can access for information and what I can’t; I’ll be the judge for myself. And stemming from that, you do not have the right to make law based on opinion or emotion that requires taking from Peter to pay Paul — Paul being crony capitalists and their well-paid lobbyists as well as all the myriad social programs — thereby securing Paul’s vote and dependency. That is not equality, not in application, opportunity nor outcome.

    In that vein and my opinion, all parents and grandparents would be better off extricating your children from the government education establishment by whatever means available to you. Homeschooling is not as intimidating or difficult as you are told or might imagine, and there are like minded groups of excellent calibre to join or get advice. Maybe someday we can eliminate public education along with its usurious property tax, and then both parents having to work outside the home may not be necessary to live more affordably.

  6. Wonderful article, Karen! And great comments, too! OK, now, let’s go forward, and PRACTICE putting these words of wisdom into action, and hone our abilities to cross the gaping divide in this nation! Ready, set, go!