Learning to listen


duane highley“How could you possibly think such a thing?”

Raising four children there were many times that I said those words. Being married for 33 years I’ve had even more opportunities to entertain that thought — although I would rarely say it out loud. When asked how long we’ve been married, my wife will often quip, “We’ve enjoyed 33 years of incompatibility.” It’s a joke, yes, but it’s true. Two people, even two very committed people who love each other, still have trouble getting along from time to time.

And those people who don’t agree with us — aren’t they a pain?

The naïve may ask, “Why can’t we all just get along?” But it’s just not that easy.

This February, as we prepare to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, we may be tempted to become a little cynical. This world is a difficult place. People are at each other’s throats. Dishonesty, cyber-crime, persecution, envy, terrorism and war rule the headlines. On top of all that, it’s an election year, and the candidates are out to destroy each other, attacking ideologies, hammering the wedge issues, and fomenting dissension in order to appeal to their base constituency. Amid such chaos it might seem like brotherly love is a silly ideal from days gone by.

I might be able to love my spouse — most of the time — but don’t ask me to love my neighbor.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I was recently invited to participate in a special event in Arkansas, our first ever “Civil Discourse Forum.” The purpose of this forum was to bring together people from radically different backgrounds and opinions to foster an open dialogue, and to see if it could be possible for folks to disagree without being disagreeable. Our own Sen. John Boozman, known informally as the “nicest person in the Senate,” was our guest of honor. He shared, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that changes men into angels.”

Visiting with the people gathered at that forum, we discovered that if we listen respectfully we can often find common ground on our most divisive issues. We all come from different backgrounds and experiences, and really don’t understand one another. I’ve heard it said that we were created with two ears but only one mouth, and that we should use them in that proportion. If we really try to understand where our adversaries are coming from, and where they’ve been, we may discover that our differences aren’t as divergent as we thought.

At the conclusion of the forum, we signed a pledge to promote the principles of civil discourse in our society. I want to share that statement with you here:

Civil Discourse Pledge

“I pledge to engage in the basic principles of civil discourse: to respect diverse points of view; seek to understand before being understood; listen with an open mind; and speak with integrity. If I do not agree with another position or point of view, I will disagree in a respectful way. I will not disparage those with other opinions. I call on all of us involved in civic leadership to meet the challenge of solving difficult social issues by adhering to these principles.”(Adapted from the Project Civil Discourse Pledge, National Institute for Civil Discourse)

I challenge each of you, in your own leadership roles at home and in the organizations you serve, to adopt this pledge. Even a small light can make a difference in the darkness. Together we can take one collective small step towards making Arkansas a more respectful, listening and loving state.