Learning to listen


O.W. Holmes wrote that “…it is the privilege of wisdom to listen” and that “It is the province of knowledge to speak”. Holmes considered that before we speak we must first listen. That listening to others was both the mark of wisdom, and is ultimately a privilege. Or as James 1:19 says:

…Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry

James 1:19, NIV

Michael Mitton (The Wisdom to Listen, 1981) highlights that our times are characterised by “high activity and rush”. It is because of this pace in our modern lives that “More time is given to doing, and less to reflecting” (Mitton, 1981).

It is the mark of modern politics, that whilst traditionalists such as Corbyn and May, seek to reflect before springing into action – rightly or wrongly – that the vast majority of the media, both traditional journalists and social media commentators; as well as the majority of media-friendly politicians – are quicker to speak than they are to listen.

Whilst I too might be guilty of writing opinion pieces, and thus perhaps it is a little ironic and hypocritical to say there are too many opinions being expressed and not enough listening in politics at the moment.

Many speak from, perhaps myself included, a more dangerous place than no knowledge – and this is some or a little knowledge.

This is probably why online social media debate is so vitriolic – be it Facebook or Twitter – and the truth is even “experts” are being dragged into the gutter, when they engage.

Embed from Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images

It was Mark Twain – or perhaps George Carlin, or perhaps its based on Proverbs 26:4 – who said

Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

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And I see the experts becoming embroiled into this identity politicking and falling into angry tirades because of everyone’s lack of listening.

And here’s the problem, listening requires presence or availability – being open to persuasion, change and correction. Listening means not casting the other person, people or group as a debating opponent or enemy or other – it requires humility. It requires the ability to be dispassionate on highly emotive issues, to be gentle and gracious, never jumping to conclusions, but hearing what another person is saying, how they mean what they are saying and not interpreting their words in a negative way to suit your own perspective – it is the ability to be impartial (as much as possible).

Listening requires openness to alternatives, fidelity to ones own words, and to the other person and their words – the ability to build that trust and be trustworthy in what you say and do. It requires a sense of belonging – that you really are “in this together” and are determined to find compromise, that you are not against them, but rather on their side.

A recent article, which featured a commentary by an academic who is a considered expert on international negotiations, argued that this word “compromise” was one of the key issues with Trump’s negotiations with China (and others). Negotiations in good faith do not seek to have a “winner” or a “looser” – both sides are positively “winners”. Listening requires we seek the best for the “other side” – even if we disagree.

Listening does mean we don’t cling tightly to “red-lines”, that even in politics we must learn to compromise. The difference between red-lines and values should be self-evident, but let us presuppose that an example of a value is “care for veterans”, which includes the injured and mental health of former soldiers. A red line in this example might be that to preserve the dignity of former soldiers they should never be prosecuted for crimes committed whilst an active soldier.

However, the alternative position, might say that the prosecution of former-soldiers guilty of a crime is essential to just society – this is a value statement, and in effect a red-line. How then might we proceed in light of these seeming contradictory red-lines and values?

There is no-way I could properly treat the subject outlined above in depth, and any suggests I make would require an accurate knowledge of law; the Crown Prosecution Service; Military law and the politics of the recent situations which it refers to – such as the case of Soldier F.

Embedded image from Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/PA Images
Embedded image from Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/PA Images

And that’s where listening comes in – to begin to find a way forward we would need to listen to the victims of the crimes; to the police; the military; the CPS; the soldiers; lawyers; respective governments; as well as the concerned and involved public. Only by listening can we determine where everyone positions themselves – what their values and red-lines are, and how we might ‘negotiate’ so that everyone can claim both a victory and not loose face.

It is my belief, based on my limited knowledge that there has been a lack of discernible mediatory dialogue on a lot of recent political issues. I gave the example above of former soldiers because of its recent discussion in the media. It is not a debate I have any great stake in, other than purely its ethical and moral dimensions as a member of humanity.

But we could also look to Brexit. We could question and wonder if the UK government has really listened, not only to the people who voted to leave (or remain) and their own “side” – but if they ever attempted to act as a mediator in the dialogue of everyone and create a real lasting consensus.

I believe it is also the mistake the Scottish government and the SNP are proving they are more than guilty of – as they fail to truly engage “no voters” and to really listen to their concerns. They have also failed to realise in their engagement with other political parties – when they have asked them to discuss the devolution, why the other parties have had no choice to pull out – because the value of the SNP is to ultimately seek to break-up the UK as a political entity – it is a hard-and-fast rule of the SNP, thus any devolution discussion would ultimately dead-lock on that issue – if, as I suspect, the other “left” political parties (Liberal Democrats and Labour) set their value and red line as the unity of the United Kingdom.

This has ultimately created a strange situation – but none-the-less expected – SNP politicians are criticising their opponents for not willing to negotiate – but it is difficult to negotiate with a party whose red line and value is diametrically against your own, that you know, ultimately, you would be helping them achieve that diametrically opposed value – and that ultimately your negotiations must dead-lock on that ever-so-pressing constitutional question.

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The other thing that I’ve noticed is that these politicians – whatever government or political party – are feeding their supporters with diatribe-le content for social media, rather than helping their followers to actually engage with those with opposite views, values and red-lines. When your followers are created online, you end up with a problem, highlighted by the SNP’s Angus Robertson who is reported to have said of “cybernats” as being uncontrollable – yet one wonders if online “trolls” are created or just discover themselves.

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What I will say is if Jeremy Corbyn is serious about Kinder, Gentler Politics, then the Labour Party must seriously engage its supporters and its members, training them in the art of listening – and in mediation dialogue. Then and only then can Labour really begin to build the bridge, so that politics in this country and begin to heal the divide, in this hyper-partisan age.

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