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Do You Listen When You Disagree?

We live in polarizing times. You’re either on my side, or you’re not. You agree with me, or you don’t. You get it, or you’re one of “them.”

Whether it’s at home or in the workplace, when we’re faced with differences in opinion, something happens in our brains that makes it almost impossible to truly listen and learn from one another. In these moments, we actually have a physiological response in our neurochemistry that prevents us from being open to different perspectives. We’re unable to set aside our biases to collaboratively create solutions we couldn’t have come to on our own.

When we disagree, our brain perceives that different viewpoint as a threat. That threat triggers a response from the part of our brain that is designed to guarantee our safety, the amygdala. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it sacrifices accuracy for speed. Unfortunately, it can’t distinguish between a real threat, like someone coming at us with a knife, and a social threat, like our boss dismissing our idea in front of the rest of the team. When we’re in the midst of that biological reaction due to a perceived threat, listening stops. We can’t reason, discern truth, or make clearly informed decisions when we’re in the midst of an amygdala hijack.

In order to regain our ability to listen, we need to recover the thinking, reasoning, and discerning part of the brain with the intention of listening to learn. Coming to mutual understanding in the midst of disagreement is a three-step process requiring a deep commitment to genuine curiosity.

Step 1: Identify the facts

Start with what you agree on. Identify the circumstances that are indisputable and mutually observable. If you are arguing about a fact, it’s not a fact; it’s an opinion or an explanation. Get clear on the undeniable facts.

Step 2: Seek their viewpoint

Stop talking! Before sharing your own viewpoint, regardless of whether you “know” the answer and are “right,” ask for their point of view. Don’t speak until they finish completely. Ask questions to clarify. Be so open to their perspective that it might actually change yours. Go into every challenging conversation hoping that you will learn something that will change your mindset.

Step 3: Share your viewpoint

Consider what you’ve learned. Did their opinion enhance yours? Did you gain insight that would allow your viewpoints to come together to create something that didn’t exist in exclusion of the other?

The uncertainty thrust upon us with a global pandemic, the threat of economic collapse, protests due to racial injustice, different political perspectives and a pending election are wreaking havoc on lifelong friendships and family relationships.

We know that as stakes get higher, the potential threat to our relationships and the consequences of the decisions we make are greater. Difficult conversations have the potential for unfortunate consequences if we can’t manage our emotions when we disagree. When we’re triggered in heated discussions, we have to commit to listening to learn to prevent unintended negative outcomes. It requires a commitment to curiosity, the root of deep-seated learning. How willing are you to be deeply curious when viewpoints differ?

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