How Radical Listening Can Heal Division—and Why It Matters Now More Than Ever

Updated June 1, 2020

We are a country in conflict. According to Kripalu presenter Rita Charon, founder and executive director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, healing what divides us requires radical listening, which she defines as “the generous and humble listening possible when listeners choose to free themselves, even temporarily, of their prejudices, biases, assumptions, and opinions about the matter being discussed. Radical listening is the kind of listening that allows listeners to accept what tellers tell as having credibility—even if the tale is alien, foreign, or rubs against the listeners’ own positions.”

Radical listening can occur on the world stage—international diplomacy, high-stakes political discourse—or it can be used to temper white supremacy in communities or male supremacy in corporations. It’s equally effective on smaller stages between doctor and patient, supervisor and employee, parent and child, husband and wife, or even between friends.

How is it done? By helping people to identify their own implicit and explicit biases and by learning to develop, as Rita explains, “the patience not to interrupt, not to demand to hear the story you want to hear, but instead to provide vessels of listening for whatever tellers choose to tell. Radical listening allows for an egality between teller and listener that gives voice to the tale.” By subduing our opinions or retorts while listening to people with whom we disagree, Rita says, we become able to hear things we otherwise would not.

When we listen without defensiveness but with curiosity, when we bring an air of openness and acceptance to conversations rather than an attachment to our agenda and a need to change the speaker’s mind, we can create an atmosphere that promotes healing. “Radical listening frees us all from the prisons of our own positions,” Rita says. “It can make permeable the membranes that separate polarized groups from one another, and it’s a way to make comprehensible an opposing position—not to change the position of the listener, but to come to hear the rationale that leads to the opposing position.”

For speakers, being radically listened to can be just as transformative. “So very delicate and powerful are the stories within each of us,” Rita continues, “and it’s so rare that we come to be able to express them without fear of ridicule, attack, or disbelief.” When we can, she says, we receive the gift of being able to hear and better understand ourselves.

From a global perspective, the implications of radical listening are as profound as they are poignant. “It reduces the chasms between people who hold opposing positions on matters of political, spiritual, intellectual, and national importance,” Rita says. “It makes possible the bridging of the polarities that now threaten not just human understanding and peace but survival.”

Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing for more than 15 years, as a host, reporter, writer, and producer.

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