How do you feel when your voice is heard? How do you feel when it is not?
We all want our voice to be heard. We all want to feel self-expressed. We all want to leave a gathering where we had something to say, having said what we wanted to say. If that does not happen, feelings of frustration, disagreement, and aloneness can creep in. These feelings, particularly when experienced over time, can lead to states of separation and division.
Unsurprisingly, I have experienced many conversations and public events where I felt my voice was not heard, from extended family gatherings at holidays to governmental forums on whether to build pipelines. Leaving these situations with the experience of not being heard left me feeling isolated.
Hearing every voice can be literal, as in taking the time at a particular gathering to give everyone a chance to speak. It can also be figurative, when people feel in some collective way that their views or experiences have been dismissed. This figurative example is often seen in national elections, when groups of people feel glossed over and unheard. Yet, this state is more likely to develop over time when there are not tangible forums for people to fully expresse themselves.
We have choices, both in the literal and figurative sense. We can act so as to not hear or marginalize certain voices, to selectively hear only what we want to hear. When we do so, however, we add, often unintentionally, to the current division in our politics, our public discourse.
Or, on the other hand, when we intentionally make an attempt to hear every voice, in any setting on any topic, literally or figuratively, we create the possibility of conversation or discourse that is more inclusive and connective.
When people do not feel heard, they are more likely to be dismissive of others’ voices. And, when people feel heard, they are more likely to allow others to be heard, in turn.
It may not always be easy or simple to create the space for every voice to be heard. But it's possible. Setting rules of engagement and establishing a safe and clear container in a structured environment are two key ways to allow for every voice to be heard.
The new and rising organization, Living Room Conversations, provides a safe place to hear every voice. Having been a part of multiple conversations using this methodology, I know firsthand that people with very different points of view can come together and have a civil conversation. And, most importantly, they can walk away with a new understanding of the "other."
A key differentiator, perhaps, is a well-stated intention to hear every voice no matter the setting. Whether in families or at the office, imagine what is possible when there is a concerted effort to hear all voices. Business journals, as an example, laud corporations that invest the time and effort into really providing time and space to listen to each and every employee. Could not the same be true for public discourse? Particularly for local issues, town halls can be a forum where there is a clear intention to give time and space to hear every voice on a given topic.
The experience of being heard can go a long way toward acceptance of a decision that goes against what I want to happen. When I feel that I have had the opportunity to express myself fully, and I feel the self-respect that comes from being able to do so, I can much more easily accept whatever the decision may be, even if I disagree with the outcome.
Might this simply be a return to respectful dialogue? In early April, the organization A Peace of Mind set up a studio at a leadership conference focused on cultivating civil discourse. They asked participants, “How have you cultivated civil discourse in the past year?” The responses were wide-ranging, and they provide numerous examples of what people can do to promote this practice.
One participant said: “I try to really learn about the speaker’s perspective and not just wait for them to pause so I can jump in and talk.” What a difference this could make toward returning to an experience of civil discourse that is respectful and constructive and that does not separate and divide.
As we move forward to the 2018 national elections, and then on to the 2020 presidential elections, what are ways that we each can be sure that those voices, particularly of people with whom we disagree, are heard? What community forums might we create to give people an opportunity to fully express their beliefs and concerns?
In addition to creating the forums, it helps to prepare people for these conversations. That is what we do at Sacred Discourse, following a relational framework that supports a shared intention to leave the others in a conversation feeling more whole, inspired, and connected after the conversation. Our framework begins with a commitment to hear all the voices, because without including everyone, we cannot move forward together.
Tom McSteen is founder of Sacred Discourse.