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November 2013: Listening to an Opposing View: One Observer’s Experience

Regarding the recent government shutdown a couple quotes caught my attention:

“We’re very excited. It’s exactly what we wanted, and we got it.” –Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) on the government shutdown, as quoted by the Washington Post, Sept. 29, 2013

“We are winning…It doesn’t really matter to us” how long the shutdown lasts “because what matters is the end result.” –a senior Obama administration official, quoted anonymously in the Wall Street Journal, Oct. 4, 2013

“Being right”

Closer to home, I began to notice interactions where the same penchant for “being right” shows up in family and work situations:

  • A mother believes her teenage son should be taking more difficult courses. “He’s skating,” she says. “I don’t want him to settle for a second-rate college when I know he is capable of more. I personally wish he would spend less time with Tiffany (his girlfriend) and more time investigating AP courses.”

  • Two of three disgruntled business partners request a conference call in which the discussion turns quickly to a third partner: “He’s not a communicator until there’s a problem – and then the blame begins. We’re at a real impasse.”

  • I work with a highly-respected engineer whose wife loves to dance. The husband, only mildly interested in dancing, accompanies his wife a couple times a month. He’s not happy that she dances without him 3-4 nights per week: “I don’t think it’s fair for her to be out there as if she’s single. There comes a point where a hobby gets to be too much.”

  • At a recent wedding, I struck up a conversation with the father of the groom, who confided: “What I’m concerned about is that neither of them (his son and his new daughter-in-law) are saved. It’s a source of distress for me. They seem happy together, but until they accept Jesus into their hearts, I won’t be able to feel very good about their future. Are you saved?”

In our Advanced Leadership Course, we’re experimenting with how leaders and others might suspend strong convictions in order to better hear opposing viewpoints.

A listening exercise

At a recent session, my colleague, Stan Proffitt, polled the group on their positions about abortion – it turns out we had leaders with staunch beliefs on both sides of the issue. Stan invited them to pair off with partners who held opposing convictions. Both partners were given this task:

“Discover as much as you can about your partner’s point of view, without injecting your own beliefs.” The point was to get curious and listen.

Eavesdropping on these conversations, I noticed a riveting sequence: each of the partners, in both the pairs I observed, moderated the communication of their strong views after listening to their partners. One “pro-choice” individual said to his “pro-life” partner, “I see your point about the difficulty of when life begins, and the problem with a woman’s choice being tampered with. It’s a tough issue. I guess I still come down on the side of the fetus being a life and I believe that life should be able to continue.”

In response, the “pro-choice” individual said, “I’m not all that excited about abortions. For me, what it comes down to is that I don’t think anyone should be telling women what they can and cannot be doing with the life that’s inside their bodies. I see your point about the fetus needing to have a voice. I just don’t think that should come at the expense of silencing the mother.”


Here’s what I observed:

  • Each person’s view seemed to include rational and emotional dimensions.

  • Listening to the other’s view seemed to stabilize the emotionality of the discussion.

  • No one gave up a strong conviction, but each of the four individuals communicated that position without force, apparently out of respect for the other’s view.

  • Both the pairs I observed found common ground. One pair lamented the fact that the government has to get involved to tell people how to live. Both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” participants acknowledged the sad fact of so many abortions.

It’s striking to juxtapose those discussions with the strident communication and unyielding convictions of family, business, religious and political leaders throughout the world.


This simple exercise got me wondering whether the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels work against real understanding. Is there a little “pro-choice” in most “pro-lifers” and some “pro-life” in many “pro-choicers?”

I asked myself, “Is it possible that convictions often get communicated as extreme to veil more moderate positions?” In a world of rapid-fire reactions, mass protests and hyper-alignment of leadership with extremism, it somehow seems uncool to take a moderate view. Who wants to be uncool?

Leaving the session that day, I thought about many leadership settings where deep and attentive listening could be useful.

Then I reminded myself that Stan’s listening experiment was a structured exercise. In the real world of family bustle and business busyness, I thought, parents, presidents and partners would not make the time to listen intently to an opposing view.

But what would happen if they did?

3 Responses to “November 2013: Listening to an Opposing View: One Observer’s Experience”

  1. December 02, 2013 at 5:40 pm, Rick P said:

another thought provoking article and lends to my thinking that it is more important to have the right questions then to propose the “right” answer.

  1. December 02, 2013 at 5:42 pm, Gilbert Brenson Lazan said:

Outstanding exercise, John. I have used a similar 5+5+5 approach (five minutes of just listening without speaking, five minutes of just asking sincere questions of clarification and listening without comment, five minutes of empathic recognition of agreement or valid points of view of the other person) in both crisis intervention and conjoint family therapy. Miracle, Miracle: they find their own solution,

  1. December 02, 2013 at 5:43 pm, Paul winter said:

Communicated like a guru mate. Just what I was looking for to help a couple of my top superstar execs see the other and the collateral damage they cause by being so right. miss you Jon Paul n Lucy

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