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Why Listening to All Sides Matters

group of diverse people covering their ears

By Carrie Fox

Last weekend, I was listening to a radio program when I heard a fascinating interview. Truth is, I can’t remember the name of the individual being interviewed. I can’t even remember why he was chosen to be featured in the story.

But I remember very clearly what he said.

The radio interviewer asked this individual—an immigrant from Peru and small business owner in Texas—about derogatory language that has been used by the President specifically in reference to Hispanic and Latino immigrants: “When you hear those words,” she said, “you don’t hear him speaking about people like yourself?”

“You know,” he said, “the way I see it is, he speaks his mind. And I take from it only what I want to hear.”

When the interviewer pressed him, asking again whether he agreed with the President, he said:

“You know what? I don’t pay attention to it.”

Taking only what I need to hear? Not paying attention to it?

I wish I could say that this felt unusual when I heard it (it certainly felt uncomfortable), but it’s not all that different from what I’ve heard many times in interviews and conversations over the last few years.

This individual had every right to feel the way he did, but it might not have been the best approach.

Here’s why:

In politics, philanthropy, or professional settings, it’s common to “hear what we need to hear,” and to conveniently disregard the rest. In fact, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that people were twice as likely to select information that supported their own point of view rather than consider an opposing idea.

Science confirms: we hear what we want to hear and we disregard the rest.

It’s this issue exactly that led me to write about the troubles of like-mindedness recently, and why Mission Partners now hosts regularly sold-out workshops on how to bridge cultural and communications gaps in and out of the workplace. It’s why we train on how to build healthy, inclusive, and racially-conscious work environments, and—I suspect—it’s why we’ve seen a significant increase in requests to conduct perception research. Rather than traditional market research on a key issue area or brand, we’re conducting research on how organizations—and their leaders—are seen and perceived by others. It’s the perfect tool for organizations who are ready to fill gaps in understanding, and organizations who want to hear the whole story, especially after they’ve too long prioritized hearing only what they wanted to hear.

But, what’s interesting is that organizations aren’t necessarily calling us to ask for perception research. They’re calling because they want to understand why their donations are dwindling, why their membership numbers are falling, and why their subscribers are leaving. (Sound like a question you’ve wondered, too?)

The reality is, in nearly every case, it’s because at some point, the organization simply stopped listening, and started hearing only what they wanted to hear. The good news is: conducting a perception audit can give an organization exactly what it needs—including what it needs to hear—to build a powerful comeback.

Simply put: There’s great value and power in understanding what’s being said, even if you chose to disregard it the first time. And while hearing the information might not be easy, it’s also not out of reach.

Consider this:

  • The next time you’re in discussion with someone you disagree with, don’t try to “win” and don’t try to convince anyone of your viewpoint. Instead, sit quietly, listen, and keep an open mind. Ask them to convince you and see what you can learn from their point of view.
  • Or, the next time you feel compelled to share a link on social media about current events, ask yourself why you are doing it. Is it because that link brings to light information you hadn’t considered? Or does it confirm your currently-held world view? Instead of posting that news link, consider tracking down an article that makes a counterpoint and engage your network in an entirely new perspective.
  • And, as I shared in my like-mindedness post, vary your listening habits. Instead of listening to the same morning news program every day, consider trying something completely different. See what you can learn when you simply listen to a different perspective.

Whether we like it or not, we all tend to believe that our opinions are very well-informed and valid, even though we often don’t know why we think the way we do. It’s simply easier to believe what we want, or what we’ve always believed. But there’s no knowledge or power in that. Instead, work hard to listen, and to understand beyond what you believe.

Then, see if your opinion still stands.