To hear what isn't being said

See how clean my kitchen is? My clean kitchen has nothing to do with this post, but it cheers me up to look at it.

Yesterday my youthful companion and I drove 418 miles across Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota back to our house. We stopped only once, at a Kwik Trip, where we filled the tank and used the restroom. She bought an orange soda, I bought a blueberry-pomegranate juice and some popcorn, and we got back into the car.

We had the iPod on shuffle for the ride, a decision which yielded one great tune after another, none of them the tunes that either of us were currently stuck on, which was why we were playing it on Shuffle to begin with. We wanted to break out of our ruts.

When this tune popped up I started beating the steering wheel and singing along. I had totally forgotten this song! The first time I heard it, maybe four years ago, I fell instantly in love and bought the whole disc based on that song alone.

Good morning, here’s the news. And all of it is good! Good evening, here’s the news. And all of it is good! And the weather’s good!

I’ve played that tune at least ten times today. Like my clean kitchen in the photo above, “The News” doesn’t have anything to do with this post, but like the kitchen, it cheers me up to listen to it. I would love all the news to be good. And all the weather to be good.

And I would love my candidates to win this election tomorrow.

But as my friend Joe quotes one of his friends as saying, “Here’s the thing. No matter what happens, essentially half of voters will not get the candidate that they chose. This election has brought out a lot of passion, a lot of anger, a lot of distrust, a lot of divisiveness and a lot of hurt.”

All true.

If my candidates lose, I will be furious, despairing and full of blame. I will lie awake at night worrying about the country that my children will inherit.

If my candidates win, the man across the street, whose lawn signs make our two houses look as if they’re playing Opposite Day, will be furious, despairing and full of blame. He too will lie awake at night worrying about the country that his grandchildren will grow up in.

The divisiveness won’t be over on Wednesday morning. One side will feel vindicated; the other, betrayed. Four years from now the cycle will repeat. And repeat again four years later. It tires me out to think of it.

Anyone who knows me knows what my politics are. I’ve never voted for the other side in my life. There are lawn signs on my front yard’s dead grass, there are buttons and sample ballots scattered around the house.

Most of my friends vote along the same lines that I do. I remember one of them saying, a few years ago, that “I literally do not know a single person who’s __________.”

That’s not entirely true for me –I do have friends, and plenty of acquaintances, who vote along different lines– but I know the comfort and safety and pride and relief of being in a room full of people who all think the same way. Who believe in the same things. Who are not the enemy, out to destroy the values we hold most dear. I love and crave that feeling of belonging, of knowing that those around me believe in the same way of life that I do and that we agree on how best to get there.

And I also know how dangerous it is.

People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.

Dr. King, you were far wiser and far braver than me. You lived and died by those beliefs. You tried, far harder than I ever have, to listen. To find common ground. To communicate with those who believed differently from you.

That idea –finding common ground with those who believe the opposite of me– seems essential, but the idea of actually getting out there and trying to do it exhausts me. Makes me rebel. I’m right. They’re wrong. But I have learned over the years that if everything in me rebels at an idea, there’s something in it that’s true.

It’s true that it’s easier for me, a person who doesn’t like conflict, to argue, to avoid, to walk away, to turn my attention to someone or something else, than to have an actual conversation –not a debate, a conversation– about a divisive political issue.

This realization, that I would rather avoid tough conversations than try to find common ground, chills me.

So I have challenged myself to have conversations –real conversations– this year and from now on, at least once in a while, with those whose beliefs are fundamentally different from mine.

That is how it came to pass that two months ago I went out to lunch with a few people, three of them close friends and one a man I’ve always disliked for his wildly, and, in my view, utterly condescending, nasty, meanly articulated politics. He doesn’t like me either, but he puts up with me because his friends do. We’re always polite to each other, but that’s as far as it goes.

But I had challenged myself to have a real conversation, and so I waded in.

It was tough going. At first, I listened in silence –he was talking about teachers’ unions and Head Start– but I realized early on that I wasn’t really listening. I was waiting for those key phrases to float out of the air into my ear —union. . . teachers. . . Head Start– and then I was responding to them silently, in my head.

And not politely, either.

I forced myself to stop thinking and focus on the man, sitting across from me in the wooden restaurant chair. His eyes: shifty. His posture: hunched. His voice: quick and low. He kept turning the pepper shaker around and around as he spoke. I didn’t like anything about him.

I forced myself to stop focusing on those things and listen to him. Listen, Alison. Listen to what he’s really saying, and try also to hear what he isn’t saying.

In order to listen you have to stop waiting for a chance to jump in and say what you want to say. You have to remain silent. You have to attune everything in you to the other person. The act of listening requires both deep concentration and a letting-go, letting your intuition take over. It’s both a conscious and unconscious act.

“What do you think about Head Start?” I said to him.

He shrugged.

“It’s expensive,” he said.

That right there –“It’s expensive”– is the kind of remark that would ordinarily make me shut right down. I would jump to the conclusions that he believed that anything that cost government money was wrong, that he believed funneling money to schools was wrong, that he believed the schools are doing a crappy job, that Head Start is an unnecessary program that should be cut. And I would tune out and turn away and sit there silently seething, waiting to leave and return to the place where people believe the way I believe.

But I couldn’t do that, because I had challenged myself to listen.

It’s expensive.

That’s what he had said. That was all he had said. Listen, Alison.

“It is,” I said, and I watched him raise his head and look at me in surprise. “It is expensive.”

Should I keep on going? Should I let it rest there? I didn’t know. I kept going.

“Some studies say it might actually save money in the long run. That it gets some kids on a better footing early, so that they end up staying in school and not dropping out.”

“Yes,” he said. “I read those studies too.”

He shrugged again. He held out his hands.

“Look,” he said. “If it saves money in the long run, I’m for it. I’m for saving money. So, Head Start, all right.”

Head Start: all right. Different reasons maybe (and maybe not even that different), but the same goal.

That above is a condensation of a longer and more rambling conversation, but it was an actual conversation, and it was between me and someone I have never liked. At the end of lunch I picked up his check and paid for it. It made me happy to buy him lunch, and it made him happy too. We shook hands goodbye. My feelings about that man have changed. I might not ever truly like him, but I have some respect for him now.

I wish I could say that listening to him was easy. It wasn’t. But listening to what he was really saying, under the surface of his words, and responding to that, allowed us to find common ground. At least a little. For the first time.

We have thought of peace as the passive and war as the active way of living. The opposite is true. War is not the most strenuous life. It is a kind of rest-cure compared to the task of reconciling our differences. (Mary Parker Follet)


  1. Ginger · November 5, 2012

    I read yesterday in James 1: Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to wrath. Listening is hard, even if you’re silent. Kudos to you for a clean kitchen, and a respectful conversation.


  2. Nicole · November 5, 2012

    This is such a beautiful and awesome post. Really listening to others about their views can be SO hard. But, I think it is worthy. I learned this when I moved from one area of the US that was a particular way to the extreme at times… to Vancouver Canada, which I thought would be my savior and I would be surrounded with people like me. But then I realized that the people at the other end of the extreme could be close minded and irritating too. So, I realized that the best way to try to understand those with different values was to try to look at where they come from, what their life is like and what leads them to be think as they do. And I have found that it helps me to understand a lot more than I did before.

    But this really listening thing with political foes, I need to get on that… that’s good.


  3. Joe · November 6, 2012

    Well said, Alison. We actually have more common ground with “the other” than we think.


  4. Lorelie · November 6, 2012

    I was trying, mightily, to say the same thing yesterday. Didn’t even come close. Well done!!


  5. herhimnbryn · November 6, 2012

    Listening and then hearing is hard work, but ultimately illuminating. Thanksfor this A.


  6. oreo · November 8, 2012

    It cheers me to look at your clean kitchen too. I was also cheered to see my friend’s kitchen sparkle as we chatted last night (my own kitchen is, regrettably, not currently in the clean club). During which I was thinking about this really listening business, although I had not yet read your most perfect post yet. Because, while I quite enjoy her company, she was saying things that didn’t really make sense to me, with my differing viewpoints and personality. Things that seem to be ending her marriage, things that will make everyone blame her, and will make some people despise her. Things that are hurtful to her husband, whose company I also enjoy. And I was thinking, can’t you just change? It would be so much simpler if you would not think or feel this way. If your journey of self-discovery did not entail discovering this about yourself. But how can you look at a friend and ask them not to feel what they feel, or not to be who they are? I decided it was most important to just listen and not try to decide what was right or wrong or what should happen or not happen. Just to listen to her calming voice in the middle of the night as her small hand wiped the white cloth back and forth, back and forth, until every surface was gleaming.

    As far as the more political aspect, it was interesting to have everyone in the household home on election night, which meant one lone dissenter from the prevailing views. At first I thought it might be strange, like how embarrassing if our candidates lose, or how can we celebrate properly if they win without being offensive? But actually I decided it was a good thing, to only be able to speak about the election civilly. To have to state a conviction in a logical, polite sentence rather than just damning the bastards you don’t agree with. It made me think maybe I should watch election results with “the other side” more often.


  7. Hope · November 8, 2012

    I have been heartened by other whispers of the same thing. Time to listen. Reminds me of one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

    Now that the election is over, let’s hope we can begin a reconciliation.

    Lovely post.


  8. alison · November 10, 2012

    Ginger, Hope, Oreo, Lorelei, Joe, Nicole and hhb, thank you so much for these comments. The whole week since I wrote this post has been filled with back and forths with those who believe differently from me, from gun control to presidential candidates to public postings on money and religion and politics. I challenge myself to get better at conversations about all of the above. (Not easy.)


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