Thursday morning (2/2/17) on CBS News this morning, Frank Luntz said that he thinks that our country is unraveling, that it’s 1968 all over again.
“Nobody’s listening right now and if you can’t listen, you can’t learn and you can’t lead” Frank Luntz
The words above spoken in conclusion of Mr. Luntz’s interview, were much more important to me than his assessment that the country is unraveling. Listening…learning and leadership should go hand in hand with each other but the choice to follow also comes as a result of listening. As a teacher I knew that if my students weren’t listening, nothing constructive was going to take place. In the early days when I was student teaching I remember being so intimidated by a group of 25 fifth graders that I didn’t really connect with them and as a result, they had a hard time listening to me and I had a horrible time getting them to follow my lead. The consequences were embarrassing because my class truly did unravel and no one learned a thing that day. Eventually, I learned the skill of fully engaging with my students and became a more effective teacher.
One of the important skills I learned early in my career and one that continues to guide me in relationships comes from the author Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The Fifth Habit, quoted below, is especially meaningful to me right now in the midst of this crazy political climate we find ourselves in.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Habit 5
This habit has served me very well for about 30 years but in all of that time it has never been as difficult for me to put it into practice as it was during this last election cycle and continues to be now that Donald Trump has been elected president .
As an advocate for multiple causes, what I want more than anything else is to help people understand whatever it is I’m advocating for. I want to create space for a need to be recognized to the point that others are motivated to change things. In other words I want to be understood in order to make the world a better place. Close to home, I genuinely want my very conservative family members on both sides of our family to understand the journey Dean and I have been on and why it took away from the political paradigms we grew up with. I want them to understand that our life isn’t meant to be a criticism of them personally or of the way we were raised. We naively thought our lessons learned would be an opportunity for growth for them like it was for us. Issues concerning mental illness, eating disorders, the battle with insurance companies, our frustrations with doctors and hospitals and all of the friendly fire from church leaders and family when we sought to get our daughter the help she desperately needed.
I also want our families to understand my passion for youth and especially to understand the realities of kids with emotional and behavior disorders. I want them to understand that at the heart of me I am always going to want to make others happy, help to make their loads lighter etc. all with the hope that doing so will empower them to live a better life. I want our friends and families to understand and believe that our work over the years, though it was not always as lucrative as theirs, was beautiful work and something we both gave our all to do. AND yet…after years of seeking to be understood, I have yet to discover how to communicate in any way that will allow me to know that we are in fact understood. It’s been so frustrating that I’ve just quit trying. In fact it’s had a devastating toll on multiple relationships because the quest to be understood and my inability to communicate effectively at a subsurface level hasn’t materialized yet.
And yet, when I look up I see out on the horizon a reminder of a time in the middle of the storm when words came to me that helped ME understand why this may be so. I wrote about it here. The gist of the experience is that you can have all the insight in the world or the very thing that someone needs to be healed BUT unless they are open to receiving it, it’s better not to waste your breath. At the time I was a very committed Evangelical wrestling with how to accept the healing advice being given to us from the treatment centers because some of it didn’t jive with my worldview. Trust me when I say that nothing tests one’s preconceived ideas about life and how to live it like being on the edge of death and we pretty much lived there for a number of years. As decision after decision is questioned, you find yourself struggling to justify your choice to who genuinely care for you and who you also care most about. In our situation it was as if my entire world was suddenly thrown into a seeking to be understood mode because the pressure was so great.
The problem is…this burrowing into my own understood world and caring primarily about seeking to be understood constantly backfires. I thought it was the compassionate and honorable thing to communicate our experiences through letters, phone calls and in person. In the midst of it I also discovered that when multiple traumas hit you, everything in your life is processed at a very intense level and your felt need to be understood becomes even greater. The pill in the ointment is that because these are the ones in your primary support system, those with whom you enjoy mutual trust, you expect that they will gain insight WITH you and that may or may not occur.
In 2003 our daughter’s doctors were telling us we had to get her into treatment or she would die but because it was an eating disorder our health insurance wouldn’t pay for it. Add to that and we were told that mental illnesses are generally not covered by insurance. She was also diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder/Severe in addition to the eating disorder. Her physical health was severely compromised but the goal of the insurers was to rehydrate her and send her home. We love our daughter to the moon and back so we begged, borrowed and cashed in retirement accounts to get her where she needed to go.
An example of just how hard it is to be understood in the midst of this experience while Dean and I were working full-time, some thoughtful conservative relatives knowing of our financial situation offered to help me by offering me a job. They were dismayed that I didn’t take them up on the offer. I sought to be understood by sharing with them why I couldn’t consider it. Our family was in crisis, our daughter was 2.5 hours away during her inpatient hospital stay and then 16 hours away in residential treatment, we had appointments to keep for family therapy and all the while were trying to hold down full time jobs and continue to live our lives. The $500 a month extra income was a drop in the bucket in light of the surreal nature of our situation. I thanked them and thought that would be it.
Unfortunately, with this person’s ultra conservative capitalist worldview in play, the free gifts that others graciously gave us to help with the very expensive life-saving treatment, were seen as inappropriate. Though never spoken, in multiple ways we got the message that we weren’t living the right way. In order to understand why this was we both reminded ourselves that this relative sincerely believes that NOTHING should EVER be a free gift unless it’s at an appropriate time like Christmas or a birthday. We’ve let them be content with their world view and done our best to accept THEM in the midst of it. Though never directly spoken to us personally, we clearly got the message that we were wrong in our understanding. The pushback was constant and increased until it was impossible to even continue in relationship with this family. It has been a brutal pill to swallow.
In this hard right culture, when you can’t pull off the extra work offered so as to make your own way in the world, it is expected that you will simply suffer the consequences. Everything changes when death is on the line and if it doesn’t the loved one simply dies. That wasn’t going to happen on our watch if we could help it and unfortunately this is what it took for us to open ourselves up to others and seek to understand what they were trying to say to us. We’ve been through so many forms of reproof from those we love that I personally find it absolutely unbelievable. Real honestly, I have reached a point where I don’t even want to listen to understand anyone with such certainty about what is right or wrong. In such a black/white, all/nothing world view it is utterly useless and because it was once my own worldview, it’s not an easy task to continually deal with something you want to be rid of day in and day out.
I’ve written before about our journey away from our faith and our political party so if that interests you, please look through my other posts for that. Right now my resistance to the conservatives in my life isn’t there simply to resist though that is a very real issue for me with this president, is it also not my intent to disrespect anyone else’s view of the world. I know that I am where I am as the result of listening to the reality of my life!
Maybe, the place where a revival of listening needs to talk place is first and foremost in our own lives. Maybe we each need to take more time to get quiet, to self-reflect on our own rigid thinking, our own judgment and our strong egocentric way of living our lives. The right and the left each could learn a lot from each other if we could discharge our insistence upon absolutes and certainty. I really think that only then will we stop being so polarized and find some common human ground to walk on together.
I know it’s really hard right now with the level of intensity created by Donald Trump’s impulsive, reactive temperament to not want to stay on Facebook, Twitter etc. and I’ve deactivated and reactivated my account multiple times as a result. I think I’ve realized that it simply isn’t the place where we are going to learn to listen to our own selves enough to challenge our own worldview and we certainly aren’t interested in understanding someone else’s very much there either.
I feel like I’m rambling in this post and I’m not sure if it’s making any sense to anyone but me. I know that Frank Luntz’s observation is correct in that we don’t listen, really listen to each other anymore and this is just my account of why that is so very hard to do.
Good night and good luck!