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

Read or listen to the news and it’s clear that we are a country divided. There are red states and blue. Americans are at opposite ends of the spectrum on issues like gun control, abortion, climate change, gay marriage, taxation, and more. Put people with opposing views together—in government or on a television talk show, in a corporation or at a university, in a family or even a relationship—and ask them to discuss an issue, and conflict is bound to ensue.

Kripalu presenter Rita Charon, founder and executive director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, knows why. “We’re all well-schooled in oppositional listening, a listening that thinks it has to correct that which the teller tells,” she says. “Conversations become arguments. Listeners become opposing sides of a debating team. Polarization of opinion and either individual competitiveness or a sense that one must stick up for one’s side of an issue render discourse into contest.”

Deep listening is a scarce commodity in the 21st century, and our socially conditioned conversational “contests” are creating a mounting level of discord. “The US government has shut down for lack of listening ‘across the aisle,’” Rita notes. “The failure of listening has achieved the status of the surreal—what one doesn’t want to believe becomes ‘fake news.’ Do we not feel closer to conflagration than ever? At the same time, individual isolation and loneliness are increasing, whether because virtual relationships are substituting for real ones or because of other social forces underway. The rise in suicide rates and substance addiction is trying to tell us something.”

According to Rita and other thought leaders, 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.”

Find out about upcoming programs with Rita Charon at Kripalu.

Portland Helmich is the creator, host, and producer of the Kripalu Perspectives podcast series. She has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.

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