"Can we talk?" -- that phrase so famously and often asked by the late great Joan Rivers -- actually had an implied second clause: "Will you listen?"
And thereby hangs the problem. Talk is cheap; listening is rare.
Want confirmation? Spend a few minutes at a bar, restaurant, night club or any other social gathering venue. The noise level is almost guaranteed to be too high for meaningful conversation. One partygoer (okay, a 34-year-old, several generations younger than this writer/partygoer) said, "it just doesn't feel like fun until the music and vibes are loud." Restaurants say the noise level is needed for "buzz," even while admitting to repeated complaints about diners' inability to carry on conversations. It's more just talk and talking back.
Politicians, who tend to like to talk, go on a lot of "listening tours," the word first becoming commonplace with Hillary Clinton's notorious preparation for her New York senatorial bid. The theory seems to be that if potential voters feel heard they'll vote for you. But the reality is that the politician is generally listening more carefully for what potential there is for his or her upcoming campaign/proposed legislation/planned left or right direction than for the pleas of the constituency. Not that some pleas aren't heard - More jobs! Healthcare! Housing! - but is any serious listening going on, on the part of either politician or voter? Not often. Generalized messages get through - shouts on camera do count - but these tours are for selective listening.
Serious listening is not selective, and involves a degree of compassion. Even the Buddha knew that. In a recent article published in The Buddhadharma, Zenkei Blanche Hartman responds to a question from someone whose friend is considering an abortion. Among other comments, she says, "Have you listened carefully to your friend..." and "What is the most compassionate response in this situation?"
Imagine, if carefulness and compassion could happen in the listening process.
One of the most treasured conversations I had when just beginning work on Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before -- and after -- Roe v Wade was with a beloved adult niece who is a lifelong conservative Christian. I suggested that she might have to pretend she didn't know me when my book came out, but asked if she would listen to my own story that had motivated it. She did listen, quietly and thoughtfully, not once interrupting or showing negative reaction through her body language. When I finished, she had this to say:
"Well, you know, Frannie, I believe that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. But I do feel that someone in your situation should have had better options." We left it at that. I did not in any way change her mind about abortion -- she still believes life begins at conception and abortion is murder -- but she acknowledged that my story is unique, just as all of us in the reproductive rights movement believe that every woman's story is unique. And most importantly, I felt heard.
Of the many deeply divided and overly politicized issues roiling the U.S. today, probably none is more desperately in need of civil dialog - reasoned talk and compassionate listening - than that of reproductive justice. Abortion foes term the issue "rights of the unborn." Clearly you can't give rights to an unborn fetus without creating injustice for the woman involved; the first, obvious obstacle to listening is in the fact that we can't even hear each other's subject line.
This writer recently talked about the listening business with Heather Buchheim, a Senior Manager with Exhale Pro-Voice. Buchheim is a very good listener. This may have something to do with the fact that Exhale is all about listening. Not lecturing or advising, not judging or admonishing - listening. They are also about talking, with their Storysharing and their National Pro-Voice Tour, but it is talking with attention to the listener. They hope for a culture change through much the same nonviolent ways the Buddha suggested, a change many progressive activists today still dream of: "sharing our stories and listening respectfully (because) feeling heard is crucial to our emotional wellbeing."
Perhaps, if the decibel level were turned down a little, wellbeing might increase.