Learning to Listen with More Flexibility
James N Kraut, Psy.D.
When we were growing up, chances are we were told and shown that we were wrong a lot. As soon as we began to move around by ourselves, our human/primate DNA sent us on an endless quest to apprehend the world outside of us, to increasingly understand and find our place in it. As little explorers, we approached our missions seriously and whenever we innocently took a wrong turn or moved toward something potentially dangerous or otherwise unfortunate, the adult in the room – our parents were of course the main culprits here – made the correction, verbally or, if necessary, physically. Sometimes the slight that arose from being challenged and redirected was insignificant, but not always. Since, as I said, as little kids we take our exploration seriously, to be taken off course and invalidated can hurt. It can be frustrating, embarrassing, invalidating and infuriating. We are kept from doing what we want to do and made to feel wrong for wanting to do it.
As parents, the trick is to balance the necessary corrective experiences with those that increase the child’s self-efficacy, building a sense of stability and self-esteem. Sadly, many of us grow up with much more of a recollection of having been wrong than right in the eyes of our parents and other arms of authority. Consequently, that feeling generalizes out to how we interact socially and instead of being able to accept moments of getting it wrong – or even moments of possibly getting it wrong, or simply being disagreed with – we become angry and defensive, clinging to the insistence of our correctness, as if our very integrity depends on it.
A healthier way of looking at differences that fall into “right and wrong” lies in the development of tolerance toward being disagreed with, which is tied with our being comfortable with ourselves. It is possible to do two things in such cases of disagreement that will keep us out of the realm of conflict. We can either listen to the other deeply and carefully enough to become convinced that they actually have a legitimate point that we can now adopt as our own. Or we can listen in that same way and come to the awareness that the other is just as legitimately attached to their “right” as we are and that we are all entitled to think and believe as we wish.
If I can accept that your opinion and my differing opinion existing together at the same time is okay, and that we all are entitled to our unique ways of seeing things, a lot of negative emotion becomes unnecessary. Holding onto being right reinforces an egocentric view of the world: Things are as I think they are. If I can accept my “right” as simply the way I see things as a single human being, I open my heart to the possibility that there are other ways of interpreting and understanding the world, even though I may vehemently disagree with them.
Does this mean we should abandon our acting in the world in accordance with our beliefs and be okay with the fact that others with whom we disagree are violating human rights and threatening the existence of our planet because they have a right to their opinion?
Of course not.
It only means we should try to respect the other whom we believe to be wrong. Since we all have a unique way of interpreting our environment, disagreement is necessary. In these emotionally divisive times, that type of respect is admittedly quite difficult to generate, but is becoming increasingly important to attain. The alternative is increased division, hostility and breakdown along cultural and political lines. When we don’t need to be right, we can be more willing to allow others to differ with us.