Are You Even Listening?

"I Voted" stickers scattered across a table

Who else feels like we’re all just yelling into a void these days? That even our most thoughtfully prepared, well-researched ideas and solutions to big problems only lead to arguments where both sides are more concerned with being right than reaching a mutual understanding? Just me? I didn’t think so. 

 This style of approaching community discourse and problem solving is especially troubling amid a global pandemic, where trust in public health is crumbling. Suddenly, topics like vaccines and mask wearing become as divisive—and as loud—as a high school football game. This worldview has two teams and only one winner. For me, this feeling of community divisiveness has never felt so visceral and palpable than it does today. 

 As pro communicators, we know that two-way communication and listening is a more effective way of changing hearts, minds, and actions than telling people what to think or what to do. Yet we (I) often forget these listening strategies during Twitter fights with strangers or heading into the second hour of a battleroyal-style argument on health care with my politically opposed family. 

 With this idea in mind, dug into the Goddess Speaks archives to revisit a post by Minerva VP Sara Veltkamp. In “Why we have two ears and only one mouth,” Sara shares her experiences talking to family about tough topics. In the past, these conversations were frustrating and left both parties feeling exhausted and in need of drink. So, she tried something different: Sara intentionally entered these conversations from a place of listening and inquisitiveness instead of the “here is why I’m right and you are wrong” trope that we are all guilty of falling into. As a result, Sara found herself in more engaging conversations and fewer frustrating arguments 

 Sara’s post got me thinking about an experience that really opened my eyes to the power of active listeningIn pre-pandemic 2020, I tried my hand at political organizing for the first time when I began working for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential primary campaign in Portland, Oregon.  

 Before the Warren campaign, it was hard for me to imagine active listening playing an important role in political organizing, mostly because the politics I’d been exposed thus far came from the news mediaopposing sides that rarely came to agreement and thought the other side was just the worst 

 I was surprised to learn that effective phone banking was almost entirely about active listening and asking questions. We weren’t training volunteers to be walking, talking Warren encyclopedias whose mission was to dominate the voter on the other end of the phonewe were training volunteers to be strategic communicators. Something I knew a bit about! 

This work started fast and furious. I was sitting down with strangers on my very first day to train them in phone banking. We worked hard to build a program that coached phone bank volunteers to listen to voters, avoid shame tactics, and speak from the heart. I gave three hot tips to newand sometimes even seasonedphone bankers to spur good conversations with voters and avoid ear-sealing arguments: 

Flex those ear muscles and just listen. What most surprised volunteers was that the phone script was almost entirely questions. Have you thought about who you’ll vote for in the upcoming primary? What about that candidate most interests you? What issues matter most to you? This was intentional. Right off the bat it made the voter on the other end of the line feel heard because volunteers centered what was most important to them. This tactic often opened the door for our volunteers to make the connection between what mattered most to the voter and one of Warren’s many, many plans. Jumping straight into a diatribe or lecture about policy was sure to end in a hang up.

Get personalI found sharing my connection to Senator Warren and her campaign to be more effective than spouting statistics and figures and wonky policy language. When our volunteers would model vulnerability in this way, it often led to a deeper connection with the person on the other end, who might also jump in with a story of their own and their connection to current or past candidates. Too often we dehumanize those on a different side of an issue instead of searching for our common groundof which there was usually more than you’d think 

Lead with empathy and avoid shame at all costsBrené Brown perfectly frames my outlook on using shame as a tactic to make a point: “If I thought it worked, I would do it.” How many times has telling someone they are wrong in how they approach an issue led to a constructive conversation? It’s zero for me. I would tell volunteers that you didn’t have to agree with a voter’s stance on an issue to understand how they landed on it, but that guffawing at a voter’s reasoning for supporting another candidate or ripping apart their point of view would only prompt the person on the other end to fight or shut down. I found that *effective* phone banking is one of the best practices in empathy and finding human connection if shame was left out of the equation.

Zoila and Carlos phone banking for Elizabeth Warren in 2020

I loved seeing the surprised but proud look on a volunteer’s face after hanging up from a constructive, empathetic conversation with a voterIt was especially exciting when those constructive conversations ended with voters committing to vote for our candidate or expressing interest in learning more (which happened often, and sometimes even from the occasional Republican voter).  

Sure, we were trying to convince folks to vote for Senator Warren, but the campaign did an amazing job emphasizing the importance of a genuine, empathetic path to get there. In the end, we encouraged voters to get behind the candidate who really spoke to them like Senator Warren had spoken to and resonated with us. 

It’s becoming more and more clear to me that the only path forward in these divisive, confrontational times—at least the most effective path forwardis to ask more questions and seek better understanding of others’ perspectives and lived experiences. To do that, we must reject this win/lose mentality ingrained in American culture and instead model active listening and empathy the best we can. Who knows, maybe after listening, we’ll actually learn something new about ourselves and hold our own divisive beliefs a little less tightly. 


About The Author

Kayla McMenamin

Kayla McMenamin

Kayla has a strong affection for storytelling and an aptitude for translating complex topics into sharp messaging. While her career began more than a decade ago in strategic communications, an insatiable interest in everything health inspired her to return to school to study disparities research and behavior theory. Learn more about Kayla.