Listening as Imperfect Resistance

Ever since the election last year, I have wanted to resist. In my introversion and general lack of political activist skill, this has been a mixed bag of efforts. I have attended protests. I have called my congressional representatives. I have signed petitions and read articles. I have prayed with undocumented people. I have also felt anxiety, inertia, and helplessness in spades.

But the other thing I have done—the thing which feels both necessary and wrong and Biblical and cowardly and brave and complicit—is I have tried asking questions of people I know and love who voted for President Trump about why.

Here are all the reasons I feel conflicted about this:

I wonder if engaging in conversations with those who are completely satisfied with their convictions does anything at all.

I want to argue.

I want to correct.

I wonder if listening to those who say, for instance, that Islam is a uniquely dangerous faith is only furthering the problem. (Yes, I pushed back. I am not sure I did it hard enough).

Even typing that last sentence fills me with dismay. Am I making things worse?

I watched a video a few months ago about a Danish politician who met with people who had sent her hate mail. It was both tremendously inspiring and disturbing. I’m part of a group that works towards racial reconciliation, Be the Bridge to Racial Unity, and a lot of the members of color pointed out that this is too much to ask of minorities. Too much to ask that they sit and explain their humanity to other people who question it.

Part of me feels like me having these conversations might save a person from color from having to do so. Part of me thinks I’m whistling in the dark.

I don’t want to debate things that should not be debatable. Sometimes the discussion should end.

I cannot tell, honestly, if my attempts to ask kind, curious questions of people I vociferously disagree with falls into that category.

Still, though, I come back to the verses that we need to be slow to speak and anger and quick to listen.

And I come back to the fact that listening—really, truly, sacrificially listening—has been the key to changing something dear to me: my marriage.

My husband and I have been married for fifteen years. We got some great therapy last year, and the biggest thing I learned—the thing that changed everything—was to listen.

I’m not a bad listener. But listening in marriage is kind of an Olympic-level event. It’s hard to listen well when you’re hurt or angry or defensive and when there’s fifteen years of baggage to adjudicate. Which (spoiler alert) might have applied to us.

My husband and I would disagree about something, and then immediately fall into a debate. The debate would get louder and more heated. One of us would say something that hurt the other person, and then we’d be arguing about that too. It wasn’t a helpful cycle.

Our therapist taught us to stop debating and start listening. Rather than immediately starting a back-and-forth, she taught us to pause and let one person speak until they felt adequately understood. She described it this way: the person listening was like a journalist, asking questions to gain understanding until they could really repeat back what was said in a way that felt accurate to the speaker. Only after the person felt understood did you switch roles.

Hypothetically, If I said something like, “You never wear red ties anymore and that means you don’t love me,” my husband learned to stop, and try to repeat back what he heard me saying, no matter if it seemed that ridiculous.

“So when I don’t wear my red bow tie, you feel unloved?”

“Yes,” I’d say. “Red accessories fosters intimacy and they are a basic sign of respect.”

Then he would investigate my feelings a la Woodward and Bernstein to get to the bottom of my problems involving his neckwear.

This sounds kind of dumb at first. (Well yes, the tie thing, but also the idea that he needed to parrot back what I said). I mean, it’s like a kindergarten exercise: Repeat after me, class. My husband and I have ears.

Except you’d be surprised how often my ears or his ears did not work well. I would hear part of what he said, or not all of it. Or I heard the surface request, but did not pick up on the underlying history of hurt. Or I heard anger and he was not angry. Or I heard accusation when in fact he felt wounded.

It turns out listening is complicated.

It was the weirdest thing when we practiced it well. I would name something that hurt me, my voice shaking. When my husband looked at me and repeated back my words accurately, when he asked more questions and repeated back my answers, it felt like a wound cleansed of venom. It hurt, sure, but it no longer felt poisonous. I felt bonded to him, grateful to be heard, and strangely ready to hear his take.

And the more we truly listened to each other’s words, the easier it became to believe the best of each other. To recognize our disagreements and act to resolve them or come to a compromise. To feel like we were on the same team.

Sometimes, when I was really angry, it felt really hard to listen like this. It felt wrong, unfair, maddening. Thankfully my husband met me halfway; he worked to deepen his empathy and hearing as much as I did.

I have also done this kind of listening in relationships that did not go well. I have listened to people who have been unwilling to hear. I have met their defensiveness with vulnerability. I have been kind.

And they turned around and emotionally backhanded me.

And even then, the listening was worth it. The empathy was worth it. Not because it magically transformed the relationship, or healed the other person, but it let me know that I had done everything I could to make things right and I needed to stop trying.

Listening well revealed—in some ugly ways, unfortunately—that the person was really more interested in manipulation and control than in dialogue. When you are kind to people and they spit on you, it isn’t fun, but it is clarifying.

Afterwards, I walked away with my dignity intact, and with a clear idea of what I could expect from the person in the future (note: it’s very little).

When I look around our country right now, I see people assuming the worst of each other. I see it in myself, in the politicians I support, and in the ones I don’t. All of us assuming craven motives, terrible intentions, conspiracies, corruption, negligence, or malfeasance.

I’m not saying those assumptions are always wrong. Corruption is a real thing. Racism is a real thing.

But I think the complicated story of our politics, racism, hatred, and shame is this: there are fewer psychopaths out there than we think. More common is a person who has argued themself into a pit of narcissism, intolerance, indifference, or callousness because of shame and fear. They don’t question their assumptions because doing so is difficult.

They will tell you over and over that their intentions are honorable, good, and kind. They will sincerely believe it. And they will go on hurting and oppressing and marginalizing people because good intentions don’t actually guard us from sin.

I count myself in that class of person: a person full of good intentions who sometimes is blind to where those intentions lead me.

And when I think of my marriage, the only thing that helped me question my assumptions was to actually hear what my husband said.

Which brings me back to listening as resistance. When these political conversations have gone well, I have learned something about the other person that surprised me. I have seen nuance in their positions that gave me hope that we could come closer together in our views. I have been convicted of my own blindness and assumptions. I have been challenged to do more reading and learning. I have been able to share facts that felt pertinent. I have demonstrated that I don’t arrive my opinions lightly.

Sometimes the conversations have shown me that a person is not worth engaging with because they are not curious or interested in nuance or new ideas.

That’s not a bad thing to know either.

I do not feel comforted by these conversations. They do not convince me that all I need to do is listen and that will be enough. Sometimes, they have unsettled me more than brought peace. I am not sure they are the right thing to do for everyone.

But they have reminded how deeply human we all are. How prone to error. And they remind me that to keep loving people, to invite them to trust me, I have to actually hear what they say.

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Heather Caliri

Heather Caliri

Writer at A Little Yes
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri