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Learning how to listen is a matter of social and a political urgency. And here is why

We all think we know how to listen. Yet we do it less and less. We cling to our positions. And (best case scenario) wait for the other to talk only to prove him wrong. But as politicians use this tendancy to gather political consensus (and oppose the creation of a collective intelligence), the lack of qualitative listening becomes a huge danger for society. One that a culture of active listening could counteract. If each of us – all included – did some honest self-analysis.

Talking about ourselves gives us a physical pleasure. Like food. Or sex. The subject doesn’t really matter. It could be our opinions on on global warming or immigration, what makes us angry or how much we like a song. The only act of informing the world of our point of view – say Diana Tamir, director of the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, and Jason Mitchell, neuroscientist of Harvard University – is enough to activate the brain regions of the primary rewards, those that release dopamine.

We spend 80% of conversational time talking about ourselves

It is excellent news, useful for the discharge of responsibility of our conscience. Because being so #selfobsessed is the fault of biology. And we prefer to talk more than listen (80% of the time on social media, 60% in face-to-face conversations, as calculated by the Harvard Business Review).
Yet, according to experts, the widespread inability to listen has serious consequences, both for the individual and for society.

Not listening has a destructive effect

Because the lack of proper listening makes dialogue more difficult, and thrives if it is nurtured with the desire to understand, before being understood. And because not listening has a destructive power. «The lack of listening is a real psychological violence, because it creates a feeling of abandonment and devaluation of the other. It easily turns into resentment », explains Maria Cristina Strocchi, psychotherapist and author of The couple that breaks out. How to prevent and cure crises in sentimental relationships (published in Italian only).

The impossible dialogue between citizens and institutions comes from the lack of listening

This reality in personal relationships (among the first causes of separations and divorces) is also in those between one and many, between citizens and institutions: «Being un-listened to creates resentment, which closes ears and hearts. Thus, in the end, none of the parties is able to establish empathy with the other. The communication closes. Barriers are growing », explains Strocchi.

And we are increasingly alone…

The impact, on a personal level, has recently been photographed by a research on loneliness. The Cigna insurance company  carried it out with Ipsos. 43% of the 20 thousand people interviewed said they felt more and more cut off, misunderstood and little appreciated during the conversations. Peak between 18 and 22 years old.

«The most common mistake that is made in front of those who barricade themselves behind their opinions is to start thinking. Or change the subject, ignoring closure, suspicion and anger. These sentiments must instead be clarified and partly legitimized, seeking points of agreement with those who express them»

But the most devastating consequences are on a social level. Because the polarization of positions and the opinions to which you adhere to instinct are becoming a perfect playground for leaders who provide easy solutions in front of complex problems. At no cost and without compromise, designed specifically to increase the effect of supporters.

It’s always someone else’s problem. We are all convinced to be good listeners

Nobody, however, thinks they are bad listeners. And most people are convinced it is other people’s problem. Most of us think this is an issue for those who scream, or express themselves by slogans. Those who does not give the possibility of reply, or speak over others, as in talk shows.
But «even being silent while the other talks, can be a sign of mental pressure», warns Strocchi. «It happens when you are silent, giving the impression of focusing. But actually waiting for your turn to argue your point. Without any desire to question one’s preconceptions or better understand the other’s point of view».

When we feel the urge to judge, we are not listening

And they are sometimes the most cultured and intellectually prepared to make this mistake. But it is only by analyzing in an objective way the way we relate to others that we can realize if we really listen.

«Listening is demagogy, if it is aimed at creating consensus. If it is born to understand the point of view of others, on the contrary, it is the starting point for creating a shared tomorrow»

«When we have an urgent judgmental attitude. Or we are convinced that we have nothing to learn from the person we are talking to. And when we are in a hurry to get to conclusions and to vote: in all these cases we are listening». It is the opinion of Marianella Sclavi, sociologist and  Ascolto Attivo founder. A company that deals in conflict management and mediation, pioneer in participatory democracy experiences.

In front of those who do not listen, is it better to provide reasons or listen to their emotions?

How can we overcome the impasse of the camps, how do we start a dialogue with those who can not listen?


According to the neuroscientist Tali Sharot of the University College of London, author of The Influential Mind, in some extreme cases it is necessary to exempt oneself from reasoning. And to speak the language of emotions. Sharot quotes the case of the UCLA vaccination center, University of California, Los Angeles, where they managed to vaccinate the children of No Vax parents.

Evidence of fact is often disregarded

«Doctors abandoned the practice of explaining, with facts and scientific data, that the fears about autism did not have real confirmation. No one, in fact, even when confronted with the evidence, changed their mind. The doctors’ tactic was shifting attention to the consequences of the diseases that the vaccines would have avoided. Also because, at the time of social media, changing one’s mind is a public fact that triggers criticism».

Suspicions and anger must be clarified (and partly legitimized)

According to Sclavi, giving space to the emotions of others is actually the first step to establish a dialogue. «The most common mistake made before those who barricade themselves behind their opinions is to start thinking. Or change the subject, ignoring closure, suspicion and anger. These sentiments must instead be clarified and partly legitimized, seeking points of agreement with those who express them». It is a search for empathy that comes naturally, if you are sincerely interested in understanding what the other is saying. Assuming that he is right and asking for explanations that illustrate his point of view, without judging him.

Listening generates collective intelligence

«Mutual attention should be triggered precisely by virtue of the fact that we think differently», continues Sclavi. «In active listening, before discussing the pros and cons of each individual position, space is given to the points of view of all the interlocutors. It is starting from the overall picture of the points of view and experiences related to that given theme that one wonders how to find a solution of mutual satisfaction. At first it seems impossible, but in reality it is always found. And it is an exercise in the construction of collective intelligence that becomes very gratifying for everyone».

Collective intelligence and the web

The collective intelligence, for the first time described by the philosopher Pierre Lévy in ’94, is the ability to bring together the skills, information and memory of a multitude of people. to give life to works that become a common good, which benefits the individual. It has always existed: from pyramids to medieval cathedrals to legends and great scientific discoveries. But it is obviously also the one from which the network was born, just think of open source. And it is in fact digital that refers to most of the tools born to promote the active involvement of the masses (online voting, surveys, virality of messages and proclamations).

Read here about participatory democracy in Barcelona

It is a fact, however, that precisely in these online forums create the most fierce fan bases.

Why internet awards partisanism

«It is a design problem related to platforms», explains Sclavi. «They are normally designed to speed up decision-making processes. Everything must be said in real time, in a few words, making them as incisive as possible. But when asked to stand up on complex issues in a blink of an eye, people do not respond to what they really think». The proof are studies on the deliberative polls carried out by James Fishkin from the University of Standford. Where informed opinions, expressed when a sample of individuals is put in a position to deepen the issues in question, are different in 70% of cases from the “raw” ones, provided in a normal survey or through online voting. In places where everyone is treated as an atom in itself, separated from the social fabric of which it is a part.

«Being understood gives people a huge desire to work towards a common goal»

When we transport this model of open discussion and active listening to public diatribes, we often come to the co-design of shared solutions. Some were illustrated at the Padiglione Italia at the Biennale di Venezia, curated by Mario Cucinella (read about it here). Which stages architectural and social change options co-created with the inhabitants of problematic territories. «We have held participatory workshops in Sicily, Sardinia, in central Italy in the mountains, with Marianella Sclavi», says Cucinella. «And what has emerged is that people, even when starting from deep resentment and mistrust, have a strong desire to help create the new. Being understood gives people an enormous desire to do. The challenge is to channel this energy towards a proactive and constructive narrative, supported by everyone precisely because it is co-created».

When does listening become populism?

We live in a historical moment in which everyone preaches the need to listen to others, to give voice to the people. How can one distinguish demagogy from an honest approach? «Those who really listen do not offer quick and easy recipes. And they stay in touch with the interlocutors, explaining how they used information and reactions. Those who really listen allow the monitoring of the decision-making process and the implementation», says Cucinella. «Listening is populism, if it is aimed at creating consensus. Instead, it is the starting point for creating a shared tomorrow, if it is born to understand the point of view of others. Much depends on the attitude of the individual. But the tools to help us with this process are there, and deciding whether or not to use them is a first choice of policy».

Cover photo: a snapshot of a Dan Saelinger work published on D la Repubblica

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