A panel presentation at a Listen First event in Charlottesville.

Ramping Up America’s Ability to Listen

TAKEAWAY: Listening can’t be a lost art, not in a broadly polarized nation with so much at stake. Listen First Project sees listening as more than an innate ability. It’s a skill that people can learn to do better. It’s also the power move in changing a conversation from stereo ranting to constructive dialogue.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus, and probably, your grandmother, said it best. “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Today’s means of common communication, however, radically amplify our voices but often frustrate our ability to listen. Whether it’s influencers on social media or talking heads on TV shows, the emphasis is on the first and last words, with little in the way of listening in between.  

In 2013, alarmed by what he was reading about his home nation, then 27-year-old Pearce Godwin wrote an essay, “It’s Time to Listen,” on an overnight bus ride in Uganda, where he was working with a Christian international relief organization. He was headed back to the U.S. but deeply troubled by the rising tide of rancor he would soon be facing. His 500-word essay went viral and served as the foundation for Listen First Project. Its premise is that every American has a moral responsibility to listen to—and gain an understanding of—others. Wrote Godwin, “What if we turned off our favored news source, sat down with someone of a different, fresh perspective and listened, leaving as much bias and prejudice as humanly possible at the door? Thenimagine if your new good practice were adoptedon park benches across America, in school cafeterias and yes, even in the halls of Congress.” 

That vision has morphed into a coalition of more than 300 organizations and series of initiatives, chief among them, the National Conversation Project. This is a platform for group discussions that can take place anywhere from a living room to an arena. Each discussion, no matter how big or small, no matter how difficult the topic, starts with a simple pledge: “I will listen first to understand.”  

In April 2018, Listen First and its partners held the inaugural National Week of Conversation, engaging 100 organizations in 32 states. Feedback was highly positive, with the vast majority of participants feeling better-equipped to have productive conversations, even if the end result was an agreement to disagree. Weber Shandwick’s Civility in America survey of all Americans found that three-quarters were willing to practice conversations across divides, and a third would support a national campaign to turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division. The 2019 National Week of Conversation was even more far-reaching, touching some 5 million Americans.  

Listen First Project also works directly with interested groups to teach the skills associated with better listening. Among its offerings, Listen First Means Business is a workshop for organizations that want to bridge gaps in communication and improve their performance, based on research showing that the lack of communication is a drain on sales and profits. The workshop begins with an “audit” to determine each participant’s listening style and measures how those in the group listen to, filter and interpret what they hear. Equipped with this understanding, each person can be more aware about active listening and better dialogue. The skills are not just taught. They are rehearsed in small teams and reinforced throughout the workshop.  

At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, Listen First Project and other sponsors launched #WeavingCommunity to help people connect during the pandemic, making America stronger by building relationships starting where we live. As noted on its website, “this pandemic can drive us apart or it can drive us together. Americans often rise to common challenges like this with kindness, love, mutual support, and shared responsibility to endure together. We need community now more than ever. Although our nation’s social fabric is badly frayed by distance and division, together we can weave a strong social fabric and emerge healthy and united.

“Thanks to technology, we can get through this together and be in this together. A crisis reminds us of our shared humanity and vulnerability. It helps us remember we share more than we differ. By #WeavingCommunity now, we will be a stronger, more genuinely connected society on the other side of the pandemic.”