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Why and how should we listen to people with opposing opinions?

Think about it — how likely would you be to listen attentively and respectfully to someone having views that conflict with yours, especially if it's regarding a topic you feel strongly for? That sounds highly unlikely, right? There's a certain pride inside all of us. However, becoming entrenched in our views and even refusing to listen to opposing arguments is extremely damaging and can have adverse effects, especially in the workplace.

Most of us tend to cling to our own opinions like we cling to film, along with seeking reassurance from like-minded people. This may be because of "cognitive dissonance" — which is, according to psychology, typically experienced as psychological stress when one participates in an action that goes against one or more of their views. While one's comfort is of the utmost priority, the problem with such an echo chamber is that it ends up making us close-minded and closes off new learning opportunities.

According to Arthur Brooks, an American author who encourages us to escape this bubble — "it dangerously skews our perspectives, first by keeping our ideas safe from any challenge and second by allowing perceptions of our political opponents to be shaped by caricatures of the people with whom we disagree, not the people themselves."

This lack of listening can weaken us. We have to understand that listening to someone does not imply that we agree with them — it simply helps us be informed about the other side.

By listening to reasonable people on the other side of a debate, we learn new things, and our views become more nuanced. It also allows us to develop better counter-arguments. Acknowledging the opposition shows that one is knowledgeable about the issue and is not simply ignoring other viewpoints.

There are some useful ways to listen to others with conflicting opinions effectively:

  • Most important would be to have an open mind. If you go into the discussion convinced that your opinion is the only correct one, it can never be a fruitful discussion. You should never insult or assign ulterior motives to the person you're talking to - No one has ever been insulted into an agreement.

  • It's best to start with your why rather than your what. Most people who disagree talk about specific policy beliefs ("Increase the minimum wage") rather than the principles that motivate those policy beliefs ("We should enact policies that make work pay, especially for the poorest people."). But by starting with your why, you can establish a common cause with those who might have a different what but are willing to hear you out because they know you want to achieve the same things.

Thus, the next time you discover you possess a quite large bias — why not take some time out and research things supporting the opposing view and hear people from that side out? In the end, one has to find a way to identify the truth in one's heart while still having the ability to be tolerant of the truth from an opposing viewpoint.


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