Have you had this experience? You express your view on a political issue, but find that the other person misunderstands what you just said. How frustrating is that. You may repeat the message to that person again and even find different ways of saying it, but to no avail. For some reason, the person still does not understand what you say. We have also been guilty of misinterpreting other people’s messages, too. In fact, such misunderstandings are commonplace, whether in simple exchanges by the water cooler or complex discussions in the halls of government.
When policy makers don’t understand what the other side’s views are really about, how can they work together toward effective solutions?
What I Learned from Drawing Class
When I first started taking drawing lessons, my drawings were poor depictions of the still life or model. How could I be so far off? Other classmates had a similar experience.
Then, one day, my drawing instructor had us draw a still life of a pile of student chairs and desks turned upside down on a platform. My mind had a hard time making sense of what I saw. The teacher told us to just draw what we saw and not see it as tables and chairs.
Unsure what I was really drawing, I went on my instincts and drew what I saw. After the session, the teacher had us put our sketches upside down on our easels. I was surprised to see that my sketch looked like a realistic drawing of tables and chairs, and a vast improvement over my previous sketches. That lesson taught me that a good drawing requires that I make careful observations of what I’m actually seeing, and not what I think I’m seeing. I learned how to see shapes, color, texture and so on, rather than chairs and tables.
Returning to how political conversation often times leads to misunderstandings, can we learn anything from the drawing lesson?
We learn that the way we typically listen to the other side’s views is similar to the way novice art students observe a still life. As the art student sees what he thinks he sees rather than observe what’s really there, we listen to what we think the other person is saying, rather than to what they are actually saying. In the end, our representation of what the other person is saying is as inaccurate as the rendering by the inexperienced art student.
What if we turn the discussion upside down, like the tables and chairs? In that way, we can bypass our tendency to listen to what we think is being said to listening more directly.
How can we turn the conversation upside down anyways, since the still life is physical and the exchange of ideas is not? We can do so through Active Listening.
Active listening is like putting the still life upside down. It allows us to bypass our analytical mindset, or preconceived ideas, about what we think the other person is saying, and become more observant. By so doing, we have a more accurate depiction of what the other person is saying, thus minimizing any misunderstandings.
Active listening works this way: The other person says something, and we repeat back what they just said. This is called mirroring. The other person will let us know if what we said is accurate. That’s it.
The goal is to make an accurate sketch, so to speak, of the other person’s ideas, the way he or she intended and not what we thought it was.
Active listening can be cumbersome and cannot be used in every conversation. However, it’s good to know about it and use it from time to time.
And, while it’s nice if both sides use active listening, it can still work if one side uses it. When we mirror back what the other person is saying, they will feel validated, that they are being heard. They will probably feel more at ease and lower their defensive wall. They will more likely listen to our ideas with the same consideration that we listened to theirs, and thus receive our ideas more fully.
Finally, active listening works best when we stick to the central issue. Let’s not get sidetracked with other issues, which will complicate the discussion. And by all means, let’s not go down the road of blame and personal attacks.
When we turn political discussion on its head through active listening, we can shift our conversation from polarized dialogue and inaction to a more cooperative discourse and effective, synergistic solutions.