Speaking freely, listening deeply
On Nov. 9, we woke to a world that felt different and discovered that we do not know one another as we thought we did. Rebuilding our country in the aftermath of a uniquely polarizing election has landed us in uncharted territory, and we’re not at all sure how we got here.
We have been obsessed — tuned in to debates, newsfeeds, the crossfire of tweets at 3 a.m. We have been seeing without observing, listening without hearing one another, failing to pay attention to what people were really saying.
In our work around the globe over the past 25 years, we have seen time and again that, to bridge our differences, all voices must feel understood and acknowledged — seen and known as we see ourselves. It isn’t enough to claim that every American has the freedom of speech and expression. We forget that the freedom to speak is balanced by the responsibility to listen and learn.
So, how do we heal as a nation? By beginning at home, right here in Boston. If we listen closely enough, we hear not one, but many separate cities existing in the same space — the proud, progressive city where the greatest minds innovate for the future, and the city where, not so many years ago, black children huddled between seats on school buses as rocks crashed at the windows. The historic city of the Freedom Trail and the city that is among the most unequal cities in America.
In their 2015 report, “The Color of Wealth,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston reported that the median wealth for white families is $247,000. For Dominicans and African-American families it is $8. However much we wish it weren’t true, the facts are stark — and as a city, we don’t address them. Instead, we avert our eyes.
With the hope of building a new, inclusive narrative for Boston, Beyond Conflict, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently convened a wide cross section of the Greater Boston community for a frank, open, and forward-looking conversation. Activists and leaders from cultural, educational, and governmental institutions and the private sector came to listen deeply to one another and quietly hear what we may have been missing. Behavioral scientists shared insights from research on unconscious human processes that shape our fears and biases. Global leaders from South Africa, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere shared their firsthand experiences of building trust to bridge deep divisions in their own communities.
Those days spent listening to one another taught us some urgent lessons.
First, build real trust — and do it by embracing humility. People naturally assume that problems are rooted elsewhere. Our biology has wired us this way. Instead of pointing fingers at others, we must be willing to reexamine our own beliefs. True leadership opens the space for learning as much as leading.
Second, we must broaden this trust by creating opportunities to bring communities together. We need to engage and reflect and then engage again — and again, until we understand the narratives that shape people’s understanding of themselves. We must learn to know and accept people as they see themselves, even when it contradicts the great certainties of what we think we know.
Lastly, we must learn to find comfort in discomfort. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to embrace those moments when our own worldviews are challenged. We need to trust that something productive will come of it, and listen deeply enough to understand why.
The profound message that we learned from the experiences of leaders and communities outside of America is that change is possible, no matter how intense the divide. Change is built on a shared willingness to listen deeply to the worlds and perspectives that are not naturally within earshot.
If we are to move past the things that divide us, we must begin to rediscover each other.
We must expand our worlds, not our news sources. We must speak with people, not pundits. We must listen to stories, not numbers. And whether we go out into communities that are ours, or those that are not — we must look not to convince, but to listen deeply and include.
Tim Phillips is cofounder and CEO of Beyond Conflict.