Active Listening

Via Unsplash. 

With continuous discussions on controversial issues such as same-sex marriage and gender identity, heated debates are becoming more and more frequent, furthering the gap between those on either side of them.

In a 2019 study Jeremy Frimer, a social psychologist from the University of Winnipeg conducted an experiment where he gave participants an option to read ten statements arguing against their position on same-sex marriage for a chance to win ten dollars. Alternatively, they could read ten statements in support of their position on the same issue but decrease the potential prize money to seven dollars. He found that 65 percent of people took the option for reading the statements in support of their own beliefs regardless of the money loss.

Overall, this study found that both “liberals and conservatives reported similar aversion toward learning about the views of their ideological opponents.” Furthermore, it's not that they already understood the other side, but were motivated by a fear of frustration or putting forth effort to listen.

The problem with this motivation is that it breeds a perpetual state of ignorance on issues rather than coming to an informed opinion on them. Rather than choosing to educate themselves on the subject as a whole, it shows that most people tend to opt for selective exposure — a theory in psychology referring to an individual’s tendency to seek out information that reinforces their pre-existing views and actively avoid information that contradicts them.

A recent example showing this selective exposure approach is a documentary published by The Daily Wire called “What Is a Woman?” where American conservative commentator, Matt Walsh, is “attempting to question the logic behind a gender ideology movement.” While Walsh speaks to people on both sides of the debate, he’s a conservative commentator and it’s being published by a conservative organization, which causes an inevitable bias.

However, the documentary could serve as a conversation starter between those on both sides of this debate. Instead, what’s happening is the majority of people choosing to watch the documentary are those whose views already align with Walsh's and further engrains their position on the subject. Most of those who have been most publicly critical of the documentary are those who have only watched the trailer and whose views oppose Walsh’s.

Although this documentary is marketed as a means to add to the discussion of gender identity and look critically at the debate surrounding it, in practice, it’s serving to further the bridge between both sides and polarize their views on the issue.

On the other side of the gender identity debate, many conservative commentators have been largely critical of any ideas outside of gender norms being portrayed in kid’s television. A recent example of this is the outrage surrounding a “Muppet Babies” episode where the character Gonzo wears a dress to the ball. Conservative commentator Candace Owens even went to the extreme of calling it “predatory.”

This is a case where many conservative commentators are jumping to conclusions and criticizing these ideas without listening to the full context of the argument, which causes those on the left to become even more defensive and reluctant to hear out their side of the debate, where again, they’re further polarizing both side’s views.

The more polarized these views become, the less room there is for nuance in the discussion and the more likely they are to start dehumanizing the opposing side. Once nuance is removed from an issue, the solution may be clearer to the individual, but there’s a much higher likelihood that that solution is wrong when all opposition is removed from the equation. The more dehumanized the opposition becomes in people's minds, the more divided they become.

To even begin to solve this division, we have to be willing to have conversations with those who disagree with our views. Even beyond that, we have to be willing to actively listen to their side and come to a full understanding of their views before expressing any disagreement. Active listening is a set of skills that originated in therapy, but has expanded its use in a variety of contexts and is designed to help someone listen to, understand and reflect on what a speaker is saying.

According to an article titled, “Active Listening in Peer Interviews: The Influence of Message Paraphrasing on Perceptions of Listening Skill,” active listening includes a minimum of three elements. First, the listener should nonverbally communicate that they are interested in what the speaker is saying through techniques such as eye contact and nodding to show understanding and engagement with the speaker. Second, the listener should paraphrase what they believe the speaker was saying to either show that they understand correctly or give the speaker a chance or clarify or correct any misunderstandings. Third, the listener should ask questions that encourage the speaker to elaborate on their views.


Just simply taking the time to speak to someone with an opposing viewpoint and show active engagement and an understanding of their stance can go a long way in bridging this gap. As easy as it is to stick to one “side” and confirm these pre-existing views, venturing outside that goes far in the long run in humanizing the opposition rather than viewing them as an enemy.

(5) comments

Cleetus Yeetus

10$ to anyone who can tell me what a woman is

Pepsi Man

get a job bro

Cleetus Yeetus

So that's a no on giving ur definition?

Pepsi Man

yeah, because you're not actually going to give me $10. not with no job.

Cleetus Yeetus

Understandable, it's a real tough question. Have a nice day. I agree that Pepsi is def the superior Cola for what it's worth.

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