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The lost art of listening

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On issues ranging from homelessness to Google buses, like the scene above, it sometimes seems like the two sides of an issue are actually listening to one another rather than drowning each other out arguing. (Chris Roberts/2013 S.F. Examiner)


Growing up in the 1960s, there was a lot for a father and daughter to argue about — Vietnam, civil rights, women’s liberation, the environment. And argue we did. My dad was a conservative, Republican businessman. I was a liberal, Democratic student. Dinners became a forum for debate, each of us trying to convince the other of the absolute correctness of our position, until my mother finally stopped us with a simple, “Charlie, let her eat her food.”

Although heated, our dinner debates were always respectful. I don’t think we ever changed each other’s minds. But I did listen to what my dad said and tried my best to understand why he believed what he did, even as I disagreed with him.

In my father’s later years, he became obsessed with Fox News, watching Bill O’Reilly religiously. He listened to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on the radio every morning. Our political discussions became less about listening and more just arguing. Finally we stopped talking politics at all. But it felt like something precious between us had been lost.

Something precious has also been lost in the way the country talks politics. It’s now more about trying to drown out the other side and mocking your opponents than looking for the common ground that can actually solve problems.

In San Francisco, there’s no end to political conflict. A friend of mine, who has worked in political campaigns in Washington, D.C., and New York City, once told me that she had never seen politics played as viciously as it is here in San Francisco. Bikes, cars, tenants, developers, Airbnb, homelessness, immigrants, Google buses — on nearly every issue, each side calls the other selfish, entitled, arrogant. No one seems to actually be listening to anyone with whom they don’t already agree.

And that’s too bad because we’re missing out on the opportunity to expand our understanding of the world, to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Our backgrounds and experiences shape how we see the world. The Depression and World War II shaped my father, just as growing up in the Sixties shaped me. Trying to understand where your opponents are coming from can be the first step in beginning to see them as real people, not stereotypes. And that can be the first step in actually listening to what they’re saying.

Probably because we were family, my father and I were able to skip straight to the listening stage as we argued over dinner. When my friends and I were deep in a political discussion, someone would often wonder how anyone could possibly support Nixon or oppose a new law. I found myself telling them what my dad had said to me at the kitchen table as he explained his thoughts.

I didn’t know it then, but my dad was doing the same thing with his friends. Every Friday he had lunch at the local American Legion post with his friends who had served in World War II. When they wondered how anyone could possibly oppose Nixon or support a new law, he would tell them what I had said to him over dinner.

We could both make the case for the other side, even if we disagreed with it. We had both actually listened to each other.

The next time you think about an issue, see if you can explain the other side’s reasoning without falling back on, “They’re just idiots.” If you can’t, then maybe it’s you that is responding to the issue in a knee-jerk way, not them.

If we are to find solutions to our many and varied problems, we really do need to listen to what people, especially those with whom we don’t agree, are really saying.

The idea that it is helpful — even desirable — to try to understand the other side in a political argument could be one of the greatest lessons my father taught me as we debated over dinner at the kitchen table.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park, and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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