The Challenge of Listening and Healing (on US Inauguration Day 2021)

In Wednesday’s inauguration, President Biden called on Americans to come together in unity and healing. So did former US Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman.

This is easier said than done, of course. The challenge is that real unity and healing comes from very different people actually listening to each other, granting each other’s innate dignity and feeling truly heard by each other. This is not impossible, but it often takes strong intention and/or facilitated conversation. It would be great if President Biden realized that and helped convene such conversations.

Although this is being written on Jan 20th 2021, my sensibilities about it were deepened earlier by the remarkable efforts of two progressive liberals to really listen to dedicated Trump supporters – “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” a book by Arlie Russell Hochschild and “White Right: Meeting the Enemy”, a documentary by Deeyah Khan.

I’m writing this essay today in the context of (a) my fellow progressives plans to push ahead with the progressive agenda, (b) the Jan 6th demonstration/attack on the Capitol, and (c) the stability of Trump’s support. I wrote this essay from a sense that true social healing – of all types – will be seen in hindsight as a far higher priority than it may seem right now.

Excerpts from the US Presidential Inauguration of Jan 20, 2021

To restore the soul and secure the future America… requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy, unity…. I asked every American to join me in … uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness…. And so today, at this time, in this place, let’s start afresh, all of us. Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another. See one other. Show respect to one another…..
[In the face of fear and hardship] the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you or worship the way you do or don’t get their news from the same sources you do. We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes…. That is what we owe our forebears, one another and generations to follow.

— US President Joe Biden, Inauguration Address

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
….We’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made

— Amanda Gorman, former US Youth Poet Laureate

It’s been almost 150 years since the end of the Civil War in the US. And here we are, perhaps as deeply divided today as we were then.

I don’t think diversity and disagreement are bad. But the energies with which our political disagreements are held today not only make it hard to collectively govern ourselves, but fuel the kind of self-righteousness that leads to suppression and to violence.

As our 150-year post-civil war era suggests, suppression and marginalization seldom succeed in making suppressed and marginalized people, energies and ideas disappear. Instead, they fester and grow until changing conditions create openings for them to burst forth again. When that happens in a society, some people feel liberated while others feel deeply disturbed, disoriented and threatened. Regardless of the legitimacy of the arguments involved, the lived experience of the people involved – of all types, on all sides – is a fact of political life that cannot be overlooked without real consequences.

Unfortunately, given how uncomfortable it all is, we usually do our best to overlook the views and feelings of “the losers”. Suppression of one side may give the other side the impression of victory – but it is anything but real victory. The seeming victory of one part of a whole (e.g., a part-y), by seeming to vanquish other parts, produces wounds in the Whole, itself.

In our current tradition-shaking moment, once the immediate danger to the body politic gets addressed, I think we would be wise to ask how we move not just to “healing” but to reestablishing each other’s fundamental dignity in all our interactions. I’d suggest we view social healing as a side-effect of treating each other – especially “those on the other side” – with dignity, as fellow human beings worthy of consideration and genuine attention.

That means, inevitably, actually listening to each other. I’m suggesting that we really listen to people very different from ourselves – regardless of which “side” we are on. I’m suggesting listening not to change or critique them, but to really feel what it’s like to be them, to live in their world, to see things through their eyes, to see what it feels like to believe what they believe and to value what they value. I’m suggesting acknowledging them as human beings with real needs, human beings who are struggling to make sense of life just like we are. I’m suggesting being curious about – and willing to feel – the flavor and intensity of their experience. In the process, I expect we will notice things we may not have seen before, including things that may nudge us to change our own views, our own feelings and ways of being.

I think there’s a kind of humble heroism in doing such listening on our own initiative, in one-to-one conversations. But ultimately I suspect most of us – including me – will often not be such heroes. Most of us are too prone to slide back into our own frustrations and righteousness. But I suspect we might be able to be co-heroes in conversations that are actually designed to help us listen well to “those other people” who are so different from us.

This may be a visionary aspiration. But at a collective level, it is also the essence of enlightened self-interest today. I see this as a priority because in a world where rapidly developing technologies are enabling smaller groups and even individuals to wreak ever-increasing damage (as noted by tech guru Bill Joy in 2000), it would be wise to build our capacity to honestly come together. Lacking that capacity, we risk coming apart more thoroughly, violently and tragically that we’ve ever done before.

Sometimes this challenge looks to me almost like an existential choice between beloved community and total disaster. As civilization’s technical power, interconnectedness, and vulnerability increase, that idealistically extreme way of framing our predicament becomes more real every day.


PS: I feel called to add that “listening to the Other” includes listening to nature and taking more seriously how living systems respond to our activities. A lot of the message above – especially the last few paragraphs – can clearly be read as applying to our collective relationship with the natural world, as well.


Conversational methods dealing with polarization
Braver Angels
Empathy Circles
Living Room Conversations

Organizations promoting bridging conversations
The Listen First Project
Bridge Alliance

Often listening is best motivated when undertaken as part of an effort to work together on what matters to everyone involved. Here are just a few of the approaches useful for that:

Dynamic Facilitation
What is Essential
Convergent Facilitation

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