How America Got Mean

The title of David Brook’s recent article in the Atlantic had me bemused and saddened. It’s such a consequential issue that speaks somewhat to how much we’ve removed our ability to connect with one another. Americans and perhaps many others around the world appear much more lonely and misunderstood, leading to an array of deep issues including anxiety and other mental health challenges. Whilst the issues are enormous, complex and difficult to solve for at any level, it did make me think, in my own small way what could I do to help us all feel less sad.

As a professional communication coach, I’m not going to solve world peace, but I can help people become better listeners and communicators which, again, in my own small way, can help each of us feel more connected to one another, even those that we disagree with.

The best tip I can give is that it’s crucial to see and hear others when we engage with them. This can sound like an empty platitude, but I mean this in a more consequential way, that of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ authentically. Authentic listening or ‘active listening’ is a tool that’s easy to forget in the heat of a discussion or when are in our own zone communicating; but it is so important to bear in mind when connecting with others.

It’s not complex either, it’s simply actually listening to what the other person is saying. We too easily fall into the trap of listening for the sake of politeness or decorum, but rarely do we actually hear what the other person is saying. Instead, we’re often keen for the other person to stop talking so we can spit out our arguments and position, or try to problem solve for them. Sometimes we’re distracted, one eye on our phones, the other not fully focussed. It’s noticeable in our non-verbal body language cues when people actually listen versus when they don’t. And for someone explaining their point of view, they can tell quickly, just by the vibe, the connection in the eyes, the micro emotions our face makes, when someone isn’t really paying attention.

So, it’s crucial, that you stay mindful of the need to enter any conversation with the active listening approach in mind. Make sure you go into a conversation willing to have your mind changed, or knowing that you might not be ‘required’ to problem solve, just to be there to listen. When you active listen, you don’t then need to ‘fake’ body language cues, they will come naturally, just sit and listen, actively.

When a person has finished their point of view, refer to points they have made. Ask real, insightful questions. It shows you’ve taken in what they are saying and are working out your own position against what they have actually said, not what you’ve assumed they would say. It takes a conversation to a much deeper place, and gives you the chance, in real time, to challenge your own assumptions and beliefs. Sometimes a probe with an insightful question is all the other person needs to know that they’ve been heard.

In the case of challenging conversations, there is an old saying in clinical psychology that says ‘use conflict to bring you together’. Sometimes ‘conflict’ i.e. a disagreement, when addressed healthily using tools like active listening, means we avoid meanness and often the two parties can become closer, despite disagreements. And bringing people closer is so important in society right now. We’ve forgotten how to really listen, how to ask questions and be thoughtful with our community, because we’ve forgotten these things, our environments have become mean, and this makes us sad as well.

So, in your own small way, be mindful the next time you have a conversation with someone. Actively listen, avoid meanness,  and build a bond with someone in a way you didn’t expect to. One person at a time, it makes all the difference.

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