The red and blue divide is fast becoming a chasm. Ideologically, Democrats and Republicans are farther apart than at any time in the past 50 years, according to research from Pew.
Some even fear that the country is headed for a new civil war. What can be done to avert the crisis?
How about talking to each other?
Not talking over each other or past each other, but actually engaging in meaningful dialogue – actually understanding each other.
In other words, listening to each other.
That is why, going forward, listening should be taught in schools.
Because listening affects virtually every aspect of a person’s life, from academic performance to job performance to love life.
Research shows that the average American spends about 45% of their communication time listening (or not listening) and roughly 30% of the time talking (the rest is spent reading and writing).
Yet even with this imbalance, most communication classes focus on improving the ways people talk, not listen.
We are doing the children of today – and the adults of tomorrow – a drastic disservice by ignoring the importance of listening.
Indeed, in most US schools, the only time a student is told to listen is when a teacher roars, “Stop talking and listen up.”
But like reading and writing, listening is a skill that must be practiced.
And while students are taught critical reading and writing skills in classrooms across the country, critical listening skills are mostly nowhere to be found.
This must change.
Hearing is not the same as listening.
The former involves the perception of sound, the latter paying close attention to a specific sound or sounds and responding in an appropriate manner.
People are generally excellent at hearing but fail when it comes to listening.
In the words of Stephen R. Covey, the late American author, and educator, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Avi Kluger, a leading expert on listening, says the ability to focus on a particular set of sounds is not just a skill, it’s a science.
“We can measure perceptions of listening reliably,” said Kluger.
Moreover, he added, strong listening abilities “show consistent correlations with many desirable outcomes for the speaker: attitudes become less extreme, well-being increases, creativity increases, trust rises.”
Good listeners, he added, “know when to be silent, ask probing questions … reflect on the words they heard.”
A professor of organizational behavior at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Kluger plans on opening his own listening school in the near future.
In the meantime, Kluger believes that in this age of unprecedented polarization, listening is more important than ever.
Kluger’s research has demonstrated, for instance, that poor listening makes the attitude of the speaker feel more extreme and less balanced.
“Poor listening contributes both to social division and to the creation of extremely dangerous attitudes.” And these attitudes – as evidenced both right now in Israel and the US – have the potential to cultivate volatile outcomes.
But listening can achieve far more than preventing conflict.
“One of the critical needs of humans as social animals is to belong,” he said.
That feeling has become particularly acute amid the more than one-third of Americans who are seriously lonely.
“Engaging in a conversation where at least one person listens well builds bridges between people, making them feel valued, connected, relaxed, and hopeful,” said Kluger. In other words, listening helps folks feel less alone.
Even folks not alone can benefit from proper listening skills. “When people perceive that their romantic partner listens well to them,” Kluger noted, “they are more satisfied with their relationships.”
Which begs the question: If we were to introduce listening classes in schools, what would a listening curriculum look like?
Kluger says a good listening curriculum is a lot like a good fitness program.
It starts with easy exercises, such as having people listen to others speak about their family heritage — where they come from, where their parents came from, etc.
Along with being easily relatable, these exercises improve listening skills because humans love a good story.
Eventually, he said, students would learn to listen to more complex conversations involving deeper emotions, like regret, as well as life aspirations.
Then comes the more complex act of active listening, where students must decipher between the verbal and non-verbal messages being sent, before providing appropriate feedback.
Finally, said Kluger, students learn to listen to an angry person, to an individual who completely disagrees with them on various issues.
Clashes may, of course, arise, but folks are better prepared to handle them thanks to their newly-strengthened listening skills.
The pianist Alfred Brendel famously noted that “the word listen contains the exact same letters as the word silent.”
Perhaps that was Brendel’s way of suggesting we cover our mouths, open our ears and actually listen.
Who knows, we might actually learn something in the process.