Relational listening as political listening in a polarized country

Political polarization in the United States is at an all-time high. The closeness of the 2020 election illustrates this. Seeing opposing views in one’s online social network, according to Christopher A. Bail and colleagues, can deepen polarization instead of reducing it. A study just before the election found that individuals feel intense animosity toward those with opposing political views. This animosity outweighs their positive feelings toward those who share their views. This is a new extreme in our highly polarized country.

The polarization we are experiencing does not magically go away with a president-elect Biden. We are faced with disagreements so extreme that family members and friends no longer speak to each other. Scholars of interpersonal communication and relationship science will have plenty of work to do for years to come as we attempt to understand how interpersonal relationships have fractured through the last four years. In part, our job will be to understand how to rebuild those relationships that have been all but destroyed. We particularly need to look at the work of rebuilding relationships across our differences: gender, class, ability and, perhaps most significantly, race and ethnicity.

Race and ethnicity have played a significant role in the last four years, as confederate monuments were toppled, Black athletes knelt for the National Anthem, and police officers continued to kill Black Americans. Black individuals did not fare better under Trump, despite his claims of being the best president for Black America since Abraham Lincoln. Research by Diana Mutz suggested that White Americans elected Trump in the first place due to status threat and fears of becoming a minority. Following the 2020 election, author Roxane Gay put it thusly: “There is no greater identity politics than that of White people trying to build a firewall around what remains of their empire as this country’s demographics continue to shift.”

Part of our great divide when considering shattered relationships is our ability—or, in many cases, our inability—to listen to one another. In research I’ve conducted with colleagues at Ohio State (Chip Eveland, Osei Appiah, and Olivia Bullock), we see when listening is difficult. Much of our research has shown divides in listening by race, including perceptions of others as listeners. We find that Black individuals imagine that they will have a harder time listening in a conversation with a White person when talking about a racial issue (including those listed above). Black Americans expect to have a hard time listening, we suspect, because they themselves don’t feel heard by White counterparts. We see repeatedly that Black people are tired of having to educate White people on racial issues; further, more White people voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, implying a lack of concern about racism. This sets a stage for difficulty in conversations between White and Black individuals about political issues, especially political racial issues. Black individuals feel they are doing the work of educating Whites, without Whites demonstrating that they have heard anything in these conversations. The time has come to put in the work to listen actively and empathically.

People don’t like conflict; Chip Eveland and I have additional data showing that individuals in conversations where they anticipate agreement also expect listening will be easier in those conversations. But we are in a time where agreement may not be the norm—partisan divides will perpetuate, and many issues from 2020 will not go away with a new president. Issues related to race, economic inequality, healthcare, and more will continue to challenge the country and infiltrate our conversations. We expect, in future research, to find similar divides in listening among minorities, classes, and gender identities. Relational listening will be an important part of improving our ability to listen to people who are unlike us, especially in conversations where disagreement is anticipated.

Relational listening, according to Graham Bodie and colleagues, shows concern and awareness of others’ feelings and emotions. When we listen analytically, on the other hand, we focus on the details of an argument. We focus on the logic. For our interpersonal futures, we need to better emphasize and work on our relational listening. Relational listeners are more empathic (according to Bodie et al.), and empathy is critical to our future political conversations. Combative political conversations will only perpetuate our divides. Listening empathically can better equip us for constructive conversations and a deeper understanding of others. Even if we cannot live a shared experience, we can work to understand another’s lived experience.

Relational listening will not cure all our interpersonal ills from the last four years. It does, however, offer a starting point for our collective recovery, and a tangible, manageable start that can lay a foundation for the rest of the work to come.