It’s not hard to avoid listening to or reading about ideas that we disagree with. Not only have our media sources become more biased in the last 30 years, but the algorithms underpinning our social media platforms continue to populate our feeds with posts and articles that reflect and confirm our own biases.
A recent study published by the Reboot Foundation on the state of critical thinking in the U.S. found that nearly half of Americans agree that they do not regularly engage in conversation with people with whom they disagree. The survey found that “almost half of the individuals who responded reported “sometimes,” “rarely,” or “never” seeking out people with different opinions.
Considering multiple viewpoints is a fundamental skill of critical thinking. According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, a “well-cultivated critical thinker” must be able to “think open mindedly within alternative systems of thought.” However, we seem to have created a world in which it’s easier to avoid alternative systems of thought altogether and, instead, surround ourselves with information that confirms what we already believe, leaving our ideas comfortably unchallenged and our critical thinking unused .
It starts with listening.
If we are to reverse this cultural trend, engaging with people and ideas that we disagree with must become a daily habit. But how (and where) can we start?
Seek out alternative perspectives.
In order to listen to different perspectives, we must first find them. Here are a couple of tools that can help:
- If you want to better understand your own biases…
- If you want to find news sources that offer a different perspective
- The Allsides Media Bias Chart uses media bias rating to categorize the political bias of a wide range of media outlets
- If you want to diversify your news feed
- Find unbiased news sources. Choose one or two to add to your daily news consumption. Follow them on social media.
- Follow neighbors, colleagues, politicians, journalists, writers, and artists from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Don’t know where to start? Google recommendations! For example, here is an example of a list of Twitter’s most influential political journalists from across the political spectrum.
- If you want to maintain and build relationships with people with whom you disagree
Seeking out new perspectives is the easy part. The next step is to engage with opposing viewpoints with the intention of better understanding the ideas being presented. Tania Israel, professor of counseling psychology at the University of California and author of Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work, emphasizes the importance of active listening in creating dialogue: “There’s a deep humility in listening,” she explains, “because your focus is on understanding the other person rather than on saying everything that comes into your mind. Your aim is to understand and help the speaker feel understood, and reserve your speech for what moves you closer to either of these goals.”
In short, the goal is “listening to understand instead of listening to respond.”
As Tania Israel points out, people are more likely to engage in dialogue if they feel as if they have been heard. Before responding, try summarizing the other person’s viewpoint. Restate the main points of the argument. Review points of confusion. This practice allows you to pause to check for understanding. You can practice summarizing an idea whether you are engaging with someone in-person or reading an article at home by yourself.
Ask open-ended questions.
Questions are the lifeblood of conversation, but not all questions are equally effective in promoting dialogue. While yes or no questions can be helpful in clarifying, open-ended questions are more likely to “promote elaboration and exploration” of ideas. Here’s a list of open-ended question starters to help promote productive dialogue:
- Say more about. . .
- How does that connect to . . . ?
- What is the relationship between . . . ?
- What would happen if . . . ?
- What is your opinion on . . . ?
- Why do you think that . . . ?
- How do you feel about . . . ?
- What do you think about . . . ?
- What reasons would you give for . . . ?
- What would change if . . . ?
- How does __________relate to your own experiences?
Don’t expect resolution.
At the end of the day, even after listening well, summarizing ideas, and asking open-ended questions, you still may not agree, and that’s okay. The goal of engaging with different perspectives is not to prove ourselves right, or someone else wrong. The goal is to expand our worldview and let our deeply-held beliefs be questioned and challenged, maybe even allow our thinking to evolve. Whatever the outcome, this practice will not only allow you to hone your critical thinking skills, but start to shift a culture from one that fears opposition to a culture that seeks it out.
Need a little inspiration?
While this endeavor can feel daunting, there are people and organizations leading the way.
The Better Arguments Project is a national civic initiative whose mission is “to help bridge divides. . . by helping Americans have Better Arguments.” The organization believes that arguments aren’t the root of division, in fact, quite the opposite; they believe that healthy arguments have the potential to bring communities closer together. You can check out the key dimensions and principles of a good argument here.
Living Room Conversations is a non-profit organization committed to bridging divides by using conversation to help people connect across politics, age, gender, race, and nationality. The organization uses “a conversational model . . . to facilitate connection between people despite their differences, and even identify areas of common ground and shared understanding.” The organization regularly hosts virtual and in-person conversations and has developed over 100 conversation guides to help facilitate hard conversations at home and in your community.
It will always be easier to remain in communities and conversations that feel familiar and comfortable. But what do we lose when we aren’t stepping outside of what we know?
So today, harness your humility and curiosity, and follow these steps to listen to someone with a different perspective. You might be surprised at what you learn.