A Necessity of Democracy: Listening

Listening: This morning, having coffee with a friend, we reflected on the challenges faced by institutions in our nation just now. In government, education and religion — just to name three — old patterns of participation or civic engagement seem threatened. The former taken-for-granted connective tissues are frayed or seem to have disappeared. My friend reminded me of the comment made by television host Larry King who said, “I never learned anything while I was talking.”

It occurred to me then that I had done a lot of talking already on this morning — not to mention all the talking I had done over these seventy-five years. It is the occupational hazard of being a preacher, I guess. I remembered the time I preached a sermon during Holy Week on “Silence” that lasted for 25 minutes! However, I am not alone. Too much talking and too little listening is a national malady. Much of the talk these days seems to be done in “ideological bubbles of agreement” which are dangerous to our body politic.

Years ago I mused about the importance of parking lot conversations after church or meetings of the city council or school board. I don’t romanticize these, I have seen angry disagreements unfold among the pickup trucks and hybrid cars. On occasion, I have even seen small physical altercations — nothing serious, but troubling none-the-less. I guess this is better than such incidents occurring in the sanctuary or city council chambers. Mostly, parking lot conversations I have witnessed have been done in good humor — like the teasing between Indiana University and Purdue University supporters. Okay, that’s not a good illustration, but you know what I mean. What’s the old saw, “Can we disagree without being disagreeable?”

Our ability to listen, even when we disagree, is perhaps more important than our ability to speak — although the freedom of speech and legal protest is also essential. My point is that we seem to have lost an appreciation for all three; and more specifically, when we don’t listen our words and actions often miss the mark necessary for true communication. I recall with both sadness and a chuckle the denominational gathering of United Methodist clergy for what is referred to as a “clergy session” when a microphone was requested so that a concern could be expressed. The bishop and other leaders seemed surprised, nonplussed really, they had not planned on needing to listen to anyone in the gathering. Only a generation prior, in such gatherings it was normal to have dialogue and disagreements expressed at such gatherings. Something was lost over a period of a little more than a decade. That something was “listening.” Listening so that participation and faith in the institution might be stronger.

My spouse and I have participated on many boards, nonprofit and otherwise, over the years. We have noticed that in such meetings, there has been a loss in understanding some basic elements of healthy listening and decision making. While Roberts Rule of Order is not the only way, or perhaps the best way, fair-minded decision making can occur, it is often the case that today many meetings of boards occur without the basics of an agenda, knowledge of how to make a motion or call for a vote. Sadly, we are out of practice at the local level whether in civic board meetings, the church or in politics.

In our nation and world, listening seems undervalued, even ridiculed. Witness the criticism of President Biden for his willingness to take time to listen and try for a bipartisan approach to certain challenges we face. I admit, it has seemed like a fool’s errand, even naive, to think that Mitch McConnell who has made his reputation on blocking any and all things that he can’t control. I don’t deny that the filibuster in the Senate, as it is currently practiced, is harmful and I do think that, after listening, it is time for some tough votes to support voting rights or infrastructure improvements. The listening has been done and action needs to come… but it is important that listening was done!

So, two basic suggestions: 1) pick up the phone and call that person with whom you disagree and listen. Perhaps there is too much of a divide just now. Perhaps, if appropriate, you might still say something like “I appreciate you.” 2) Next meeting you attend where decisions are made, listen to see how you can in small ways improve the democratic process. It might be as simple as saying, “Could take a moment to set out an agenda, maybe set one now or plan on it next meeting?”

Retooling our listening abilities are a necessity if our democracy is to survive in any and all of our institutions, large and small.

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