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  • P. J. Strand & M. Kopell

Listening to Understand the “Who” as Well as the “What”



Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, recently asserted the value of “listening with empathy” in the nation’s current political and social climate of “polarization” and “tribalism.” It is essential, he says, for us to be able to “debate and reason with those with whom we disagree.”

Kramer also asserts that listening to others, even when we believe with all our hearts that they are wrong, calls for self-conscious effort and discipline, and that this kind of listening is essential if we are to find common ground.

We agree. Listening with empathy to understand the What of other people’s views and positions is important. However, in order for our society to make the paradigm shift Kramer gestures toward, we also need to understand the Who.

Civity describes the paradigm shift we want to see: a culture in which people deliberately engage in relationships of respect and empathy with those who are different from them. People can be different by virtue of their race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, and other social markers – as well as what they think and believe. Our different experiences – which often reflect our membership in these social groups – underlie our different beliefs and perspectives.

These differences – social markers plus experience – define the Who in each of us. Ideally the rich panoply of Whos should be celebrated. But instead it’s the specter of different Whos that divides our society. We use the Who to promote inequity, to separate “us” from “them”, and to deem ourselves “in” and others “out.” We use the Who as an excuse for not seeing and not listening.

A culture of Civity embodies a challenge to the social and political acceptance of inequity and exclusion. “We-all-belong” relationships, especially between those of us who are more privileged in various ways and those who are less privileged, strike at the root of systems of exclusion and marginalization.

Listening with empathy to understand the Who that grows from other people’s experiences is foundational, and it lies at the heart of relationships of respect and empathy. Understanding the Who behind people’s differences, not only their arguments but what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls their “deep stories” … now that’s radical.


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