I’ve gotten to know Graham Bodie over the past year as I’ve gotten involved as a coalition partner for The Listen First Project, a group of organizations focused on using dialogue to heal the social fabric of America.
Graham is a Chief Listening Officer of Listen First Project and also a professor of integrated media communications at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi.
“I study how people show up when someone is disclosing a distressful event. Usually not a traumatic event. I’m not a psychotherapist. I don’t study trauma. I study everyday stressors and the sort of minor stressors that you might share with a spouse or a friend or a family member, but yet can have profound impact on our wellbeing. And the fact is that that when we share what we’re going through, most people don’t really know how to handle that. They give advice, they say, ‘oh, well, listen what happened to me.’ And they think that’s helpful.
And swapping stories can certainly be helpful. But what typically is more helpful is to allow that person space to share their story, to ask them insightful questions about why it is making them feel the way they do and how it fits into their larger framework for how they see the world.
If you think about it on a daily basis, how many people actually take the time to listen to you? Very few. We have very superficial conversations with most of the people that we interact with on a daily basis. And that’s okay for the most part, I suppose, but imagine you’re the person at the grocery checkout line and all you have all day long is superficial conversations with someone, and then you get home and you have another superficial conversation with your spouse. At some point you’re going to break. And I’m saying all this, knowing that I don’t always do the best job of listening to my kids and listening to my spouse.
And if that’s true for our personal relationships, how much truer is that for society in general, where, if you take a hundred thousand people in a community, all of whom have no one who listens to them, then you see the problem. You see that that’s fractured family times a hundred thousand. So, imagine that times 300 million, and you can see maybe why we’re in some of the places that we’re in, in this country.
In Western culture, we have a phrase, ‘think before you speak,’ but have you ever heard anybody say, ‘think before you listen?’ It’s just not something that we do, but we ought to think before we listen. We ought to ask, ‘what is my goal? What am I trying to accomplish and really, what are you trying to accomplish?’
And so that’s a fundamental question. What are you seeking to accomplish by telling me the story? One way to get the answer is to ask outright, what are you seeking to accomplish? Another way is to just listen intently. And openly, and try to sort of figure that out along the way. Pay attention. Right. And then ask strategic questions to try to figure out what we’re trying to accomplish in this conversation.
But that also involves shedding my agenda to a certain extent, to the extent that I can. I’m never going to fully be in some Nirvana state, some fully mindful state, although I can get closer to that through practice, through breathing techniques. But we’re not taught to do these things. We’re taught, usually, someone comes to you, they have a problem, you give them a solution…done. And that’s not always what we want out of a conversation.
There’s some data to suggest that, whether it’s liberal, conservative, or whatever the ideology is, the phrases that you use to describe this work matters. So if you say diversity and inclusion, that’s a flag, that’s a blue flag. You’re waving your blue flag. Even though the principal of diversity and inclusion, most people can agree whether you’re red, white, blue, purple, whatever ideology you come from, you can get on board with diversity of thought, diversity of opinion, diversity of perspective. But just that terminology, because it’s been used primarily by the left, by Progressives, can absolutely wave the blue flag. And therefore everybody that’s waving the red flag says, ‘oh, I know what this is about. I don’t want anything to do with that.’
You can say the same thing on the other end of the spectrum, where you talk about freedom and patriotism, which is waving the red flag. And even though you’ll have blue people who love freedom and love this country love this country, uh, they, they will turn away from those words because of the societal baggage that’s attached to it. I don’t know when it occurred, but as soon as you drive by someone’s house and see an American flag flying, you know they voted for Trump and they think open borders are bad. All these things flood into the conversation.
We struggle with this all the time at Listen First Project. Of the 250 or so organizations that are in the coalition, the majority of them are led by blues. There are fewer reds in this space, although there are organizations that work explicitly to draw in people who would identify as a red, as a conservative, as potentially a Republican or a libertarian whatever brand of red you might be.
There are some groups that use the language of bridge building, and what they really mean is we want to have a conversation and we want to be open as long as eventually you shift toward our position. I think if you’re approaching conversation with the idea that you’re going to change someone else without also being open to changing yourself, it becomes a non-starter. Then what really is the point of that conversation? If you really aren’t intellectually humble, if you really aren’t open-minded, if you’re assuming someone else should be open-minded, but you shouldn’t be, we have a problem. I mean, we fundamentally have a problem and so of course, conservatives are right to be a little wary and reticent of some attempts at ‘bridge building,’ because they’ve seen before that really what those attempts mean is to be more progressive, be more liberal, be more democratic, be more blue. And that’s not always the right way to approach….maybe it’s never the right way to approach a bridge building conversation.
But I’m not sure when human rights and civil rights and voting rights became blue issues. I mean, why are those things blue? Why are those things progressive? All people should have the right to vote unencumbered by circumstance, situation, skin, color, income.
Clearly the Republican party and the Democratic party, neither one of them has a strong hold on liberation of people of color or marginalized communities. It was the Democratic party before the civil rights movement that was the party of the oppressor. And so it just flipped the script, after the civil rights movement. Maybe that was the turning point, if you will, of, of the Republican party taking that role on. No party is free of scrutiny, free of criticism on the oppression of marginalized communities. All of the political parties are a problem.
And I think the fact that we have political parties is maybe not the central problem.
The problem is when we use the D or the R or the L or whatever it is as a core marker of our identity, that I am Republican. And therefore I am Democrat, and therefore I am Libertarian. And therefore, rather than that’s who I happened to vote for, because I agree with the policies, it becomes wrapped up in who we are fundamentally as a person, I think that’s when we are unable to have conversation, because it seems like if you’re trying to change my political affiliation, you’re trying to change me. And I like me. I’m a nice person. I wake up every day with me and I look in the mirror and I smile. So if it’s wrapped up in my identity, those conversations then become about identity, not about policy. They become about me and my personality, which I see as unchanging and so it becomes harder and harder to separate person from position when position and party become part of my idea.
Like many campuses around the country, ours just completed a climate study, which is open to anybody. Of course, not everybody answers a survey, but you have faculty, staff, students, administration, answering various questions in terms of whether they feel safe and comfortable on campus, whether they’ve experienced any kind of harassment based on any of their identity categories, whether they feel comfortable sharing ideas. For students in particular, do they feel that they can freely express their views inside of a classroom. I worked closely with the division of diversity and community engagement on several programs and different events to bring people together across difference.
Before COVID, we brought Braver Angels in and did some red blue workshops. A couple of weeks ago, we did an Everybody Loves Lincoln event, where you bring together a panel of students and experts around an issue and students see how you can have a ‘civilized conversation’ about a difficult topic. Again, pre-COVID we did a thing called The Longest Table where we just simply invited people to a meal that the university provided. We had facilitators at each of the tables and we just entertained a conversation around who you are, just a get to know you conversation, but it was a structured get to know you conversation that you would hope you would have as you come into freshmen orientation. But oftentimes you don’t because you come with a best friend, your class of a hundred people, so you don’t always expand your circles. There are almost 40% of the student body that belongs to a Greek organization. Of course, that creates silos. So anyway, the, the larger issue is that we have structures in place on campus that allow some people to feel welcomed. Some people to feel like they have a voice, some people to feel like they belong. And then other people, not.
I also sit on the university’s bias education response team, which, if anybody’s read anything in the news, those are controversial. There’s been some lawsuits, most prominently at the University of Michigan against these entities on campus. It’s both an opportunity for students who feel they are the victims of bias, implicit bias or explicit bias, to raise that concern. And for the person who’s accused of being the biased individual or perpetuating biased behavior, if that is able to be determined, for them to voluntarily engage in education, sort of learning about the history of some word that they used, or the history of some phrase that they used. Not necessarily to change their minds, but to open them to [other perspectives.]
It’s not to penalize or to wag my finger at somebody because you’re using words that you were raised to use. And you don’t know that these might be offensive or otherwise ring untrue or read differently to someone else’s ears because of their life experiences. So it’s really just an opportunity to engage in a conversation and engage some education. We’re a university, we ought to be educating. We ought to be entertaining all of the perspectives.
And so, let’s talk about your experience. Let’s talk about my experience. Let’s talk about the experiences that I understand that other people have had. Bring those into a conversation again, not so that I leave changed in the way that I might act. And not that you will leave changed necessarily in the way you might act, but so that we both change in the fact that now I understand where you’re coming from. I understand your associations, you understand my associations.
I teach a class in persuasion and one of the theories I talk about is called social judgment theory. Change is slow. Persuasion is slow, attitude changes, slow behavior changes, slow. It’s a process of judgment and adjustment, that we always judge incoming messages based on what we already believe in. And if you say something that is so far away from my anchor attitude, from what I believe fundamentally about that issue, if you come in with a message that is outside of what this theory calls the latitude of acceptance, outside of the set of beliefs that I find potentially acceptable…if it lands in my latitude of rejection, then I perceive that message to be even farther away from my position that it actually is. And I adjust my anchor attitude potentially away even further away from where you want me to go.
[In the Listen First coalition] there’s all these conversation guides and they begin with these sort of understandings or like a contract, if you will. Like a guide post. And two of my favorites, one comes from an organization called Living Room Conversations. And I have a shirt that says it. It says ‘More curious, less furious.’ So come to the conversation curious and open to understanding the other’s point of view. The other comes from an organization that used to be housed here and is now in Jackson, Mississippi called the William Winter Institute. Their guidepost is, ‘turn to wonder.’ So, in conversations where I feel myself becoming agitated or frustrated, I turn to wonder. I wonder what led this person to this belief. I wonder what life experiences have created this position or created the person to be the way that they are. If we can have that curiosity, it’s antithetical to the common wisdom. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, Curiosity helped the cat learn.”
-What comes to mind when you hear the language of bridging divides?
-When has someone listened to you well?
-Do you feel like you are a good listener?
-When have you had a useful conversation across difference?
-In our increasingly polarized world, do you sense that you have given up? Or do you find hope for healing?
-What are the silos you have retreated to? What would it take for you to leave them?
-Do you feel like you enter into political conversations with an open mind?
-Are you more focused on policy or ideology?