I don’t listen to the radio very much, and one of the reasons is about to unfold. A few weeks ago, after a young woman had taken her own life, there was a lot of discussion about the legal process in rape cases, and whether or not it should change. It is something that rightly stirs up strong feelings, and I tuned into a programme that advertised itself as discussing the complexities involved. Perhaps that’s what it became after 10 minutes, but I was too annoyed to listen for that long. It turned out to be one of those ‘discussions’ which was nothing to do with dialogue and a lot to do with dominance – winners and losers. No –one was interested in other people’s perspectives, but just wanted to prove their own point, repeatedly….. like a political ‘debate’ where one side of the House shouts at each other.
When I finally get to be in charge, things are going to be different. Every primary school is going to teach children how to resolve conflicts through words. All those existing under funded projects to teach conflict resolution are going to become mandatory, and we are going to learn at last that listening and being listened to can produce healthier and more effective solutions to many of our current dilemmas. And the media is going to light the way with wonderful examples of intelligent conversations where people think together, and work out how to manage differences.
In the meantime, it makes me very appreciative of the psychotherapy world, where at least some of the time people are struggling hard to genuinely listen to others, even when their ideas and opinions are different. Group therapy[i] in particular offers an opportunity to get beyond the adversarial and into genuine dialogue. The formula may be very simple: each party has the opportunity to be heard, uninterrupted. Those who are listening discuss their understanding of the points of view, and what they think might be going on, whilst the ‘protagonists’ listen. Then everyone talks together about what they have understood from the conversations so far. What usually happens is that the ‘third parties’ can say things that enable the protagonists to soften and begin to listen: they can both support them and challenge them. When the whole group then join together in conversation, something has shifted. Once it becomes possible that “I” could be wrong rather than “You” have to be, then we are really talking!
Of course it doesn’t always have a happy ending, and it may be revisited over and again. But the rewards are worth waiting for and worth working towards.