A moment in the US for deep listening

A national unsettling caused by the pandemic and the racial justice movement has opened an opportunity to change the way Americans debate issues.

Residents in Clinton, La., discuss whether to remove a statue of a Confederate soldier in a public square.

In early April, a minor earthquake rattled the Mexican town of Petatlán. In pre-pandemic times, the seismic signals would have been difficult to pick out from all the vibrations of human activity that ground-monitoring instruments can also detect. But shutdowns from COVID-19 have produced a long period of reduced seismic noise from people, enabling geologists to identify natural tremors as seldom before.

These scientists are not alone in taking advantage of the new quiet. With fewer ships at sea, marine biologists have noted changes in the way humpback whales communicate with each other.

In both cases, this kind of deep listening may lead to advances in earthquake detection or reshape strategies to protect whales.

Could the same idea be applied to today’s politics? Have both the pandemic and the racial justice movement opened up an unsettling moment in the U.S. to enable broader listening?

Joint research by the University of California, Berkeley and Yale University has found that listening during a political discussion is more persuasive than debating. It is also the secret to finding common ground on divisive issues.

A first step is to frame a dialogue as a learning experience for all sides. Otherwise each person’s initial views may only harden. A study published in May engaged nearly 7,000 U.S. voters in conversations about immigration and transgender rights. Those framed as arguments about policy choices tended to reinforce views already held. When participants were exposed to personal narratives on the same issues, gaps narrowed.

Arguments generate counterarguments, researchers found. “When we talk about persuasion, we talk so much about how to make the most effective arguments,” said David Broockman, a UC Berkeley professor who led the study, in an interview with Berkeley News. “But we don’t talk so much about how to be a good listener. ... We might have more in common than we think.”

In particularly divisive elections, voters often cast ballots against candidates they oppose rather than for candidates they support. Just before the 2016 presidential election, for example, a Pew poll found that 53% of Republican voters were motivated to vote against Hillary Clinton while 44% said they were motivated to vote for Donald Trump. For the coming election, a Democracy Fund poll looked at the “net enthusiasm” – the share of voters who find a candidate “very unfavorable” minus those who find the candidate “very favorable.” It showed that Americans have low expectations. Both presidential candidates have a negative net enthusiasm among likely voters: Joe Biden at minus 3%, President Trump at minus 23%.

There is still time to change the nature of the national discussion. While the outward responses to the pandemic and racial injustice have made for a restive summer, they have also opened quieter spaces for dialogue. In recognizing this, the heightened empathy can elevate the tone of the campaign. A robust contest of ideas involves more than speaking. Deeper listening can strengthen democracy, too.

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