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Election Reminds Us of Importance of Listening

Twenty years ago, I was at a fever pitch of excitement, because college debaters I helped coach had stormed through the national tournament all the way to the finals. If they won just once more, they would be crowned national champions.

A few hours later, after they lost, we struggled to understand how such a promising setup fell apart. It took a few years and a little perspective, but I finally could sum it up in a few words.

I teach communication to college students. Ten years ago this year, I was first assigned to teach a full 15-week class about listening: how it works, what it does, and how to get better at it. Somewhere along the way, something clicked: My debaters didn’t lose because we weren’t ready for the opponents’ arguments. The problem was, at a critical moment, we answered the wrong argument. We answered an argument they did not make, and therefore didn’t answer the argument they did make.

It taught me something monumental about communication. My students outpaced everyone else in thinking, strategizing and speaking, but down at the roots, where the entire process had to begin, they suffered a failure to listen.

I don’t know one person who is happy with the 2016 presidential election. Obviously, Clinton, Johnson and Stein’s supporters aren’t, but even many Trump voters feel ill-served. Millions of Trump votes were really a refusal to play along, a sledgehammer blow to the fourth wall of electoral theater.

Three weeks before his assassination, Dr. King told an audience in Grosse Pointe, Mich., that riot was “the voice of the unheard.” Some Trump supporters undoubtedly believed Trump could do the best job as president, but others cast their votes as precision-guided Molotov cocktails, as rioting that targeted much more than cars and buildings, and continued past any mob’s point of exhaustion.

If voting for Trump gave voice to the unheard, then the accruing failures by Clinton, Cruz, Jeb Bush, Romney, Obama, and many, many more, were failures of listening. Not thought, strategy or speech, but failures to listen.

We listen to more humans, and fewer broadcasts and postings.

Sherry Turkle and Sarah Konrath, who are only a Google search away, have between them built a compelling case that we are hollowing out our social connective tissue. If books weakened the imperative to find and affiliate with the right teacher, and television relieved the need to create worlds in one’s imagination, then what digital devices and social media bring with them is an insidious, silent stripping away of empathy.

I’m not saying everyone should shut down Facebook and smash their cell phones. I am, however, saying that we had to invent exercise equipment because our cars and office jobs deprived us of the hard and healthy work of staying in shape.

Talk radio and politically polarized TV shows have a stranglehold on the public conversation, but fast food in general and McDonald’s in particular once held a stranglehold on the American diet. What we need is a foodie movement for talk. We need people who love their country and miss their sense of community to seek out the most different people they can find, put aside slogans and scripted insults, and commit to listen.

The problem, as Turkle warns, is the more we use our phones and tablets to send messages, the more wobbly and uncomfortable we feel looking into a face while speaking difficult words. That smartphone, with its clean, predictable apps, does what pornography does to marriages: It breeds unrealistic standards of completion, perfection, and blinds us to the beauty of connection after a messy, fumbling struggle.

Our politics is industrial, but it needs to be artisanal. I sometimes have the little sidewalk dance when I lock eyes with someone else and we both try to give the other person room. It’s funny and harmless, and never turns into anything resembling road rage, because we each see a human being and not a metal box. We similarly need to listen, and then speak thoughtfully in return, to human faces, so from start to finish we feel the presence of others and our commonality, our shared humanity.

The information age we inhabit is concentrating the potency of our messages, but we have not yet harnessed the new tools to make us better listeners. We are obese with information and hypertense with anxiety. Unless we stubbornly commit to consume at a more humane rate and through a more human frame, the 2016 election might only be a stopping point on the road down.

Doyle Srader is a professor of speech and communications and head debate coach at Northwest Christian University. To see the full article, click here.

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