Posted by: MC | May 11, 2010

Listening Across Difference – We’re All in This Together, Pt.1

“We’ve been majoring in the minors instead of the majors.
We can get back to the little stuff.  Right now we need
everybody together to deal with the big things.”

Business Consultant, Baptist Church leader, Republican
Kerrville, TX

 In the next few days, I’ll meet with two talented and otherwise fabulous grad students who have volunteered to help me with the ethnographic coding and analyses of all of these interviews.  While I’m curious about the findings of such an essentially nerdy, a.k.a. formal consideration of the EX:Change voices, it feels a little weird.  Potentially sterile, potentially distancing, potentially disrespectful.  Of course, that comes from my historic bad attitude about the “science” of human behavior and experience. 

My undergraduate majors in college were Psychology and English.  “Soft” social science and literature.  The “soft” is an attribution of “real” scientists (chemists, physicists, biologists and the like), but even within psychology there are many who hold fast to reductionistic methods for decoding the human experience.  And actually there is value and vast mystery in what those folks find, too.  There are undeniable benefits to “science,” benefits that, for example, reduce pollution or infant mortality.  Benefits that save a beloved’s life. 

I guess I’m just a fan of the mysterious parts, the parts that can’t be held absolutely still, the stories that you’d never predict – the ones that come directly from the heart and soul of a person smack in the middle of a life.  I’ll get over my antsy attitude.  From my own experience I’ve seen how ethnographic methods can help us learn from the vast art of human living.

As the three of us move into that more formal inquiry we’ll listen for the themes in the words of the 100 EX:Change voices.  We’ll listen to what they’ve said about their lives and the understandings they had during that unique time in our shared American history – the first 100 days of the Presidential Administration of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black (biracial) President. 

EX:Change wasn’t about Obama specifically, even though his campaign is accurately associated with initially emphasizing the word “change.”  By the time we got to the voting process, the word had become central in the calls coming from all candidates and their supporters.  We all wanted it, and as I’ve said elsewhere, it seemed very important for us to have some clear sense of what we meant when we said it – “change.”  So a more formal analysis will reveal themes that help describe what the 100 voices were saying in common.  That will be helpful.

Today, before any formal analysis begins, it seems safe to say that a theme of high value to many of the EX:Change voices was listening and speaking across differences.  There was a consistent longing for that kind of relating in general, and particularly in the dealings of our elected leaders.  There were also fledgling ideas, little hints for how it would look to make that value real.  Making it real, walking that talk – that’s often the biggest challenge.

So, for next few blog entries I’m going to start looking through the EX:Change voices for examples of this longing and the ideas of how it can come to be more commonly practiced.  This week, I’m remembering two women I interviewed one March day in Georgia.  Two white women, one in her 60s and one in her late teens:  Anna from last week and Egan, the 17-year-old I met for coffee four hours after Anna and I spoke. 

Like I said, Anna is a champion of free enterprise.  She sees business health as reliant on entrepreneurialism which in turn requires a large measure of freedom to risk the investment of capital and creativity necessary for giving a new business a try.  Anna started her work life as an educator.  Before long she took a job with the Marietta, GA Chamber of Commerce.  That experience shifted her career trajectory and her political sensibilities.  She’s a business woman who finds the Republican Party most effective in representing what she sees as most vital to the health and endurance of our country. 

One of the first things Anna said was, “The word change reflects human optimism.  We want something better and therefore we keep striving.  To me, change would look like less strife – less meanness and more understanding of people’s differences, communities’ differences, countries’ differences.  And that would be signified by less conflict of all kinds.”

I asked her what she thinks people with conflicting political perspectives misunderstand about her and about one another.  “What gets misunderstood?  I guess people’s motives get misunderstood,” she began.  “The people who want this socialistic type change suspect the motives of other people to be greed and all for themselves.  And the people who want free enterprise and individual freedom think that the other side wants to take from them and give to people who don’t work for it.”

Later I asked what might make it possible to cooperate across these differences.  “It would be more listening,” she said.  Then she laughed lightly and said, “It might even be more women.”  She described helping to plan an annual national conference called, “Possible Woman.”  The 2009 focus was women in business.  “This event tends to be pretty much on the liberal side.  Not completely, but it tends to lean that way.  Still, there’s good listening going on there and the support of diverse opinions has been better. 

“The women who tend to get out front in public leadership have more liberal agendas.  The more conservative women tend to support men.  I think that’s changing, but it has been that way.  There’s more tradition in the conservative community.  The other community looks at the world a little differently. 

“I can imagine constructive dialogue across political differences, but I think you have to have the right forum.  Maybe there has to be a conscious agreement to be in the conversation.  I’m thinking about my relationships with friends who think very differently than I do.  Without saying it out loud, we agree not to talk about politics.  (laughs)  We’re just not very good at it.  A lot of them are educators and I used to be one so I know where they’re coming from.  I used to somewhat think that way myself.  It’s that, ‘This is so unfair.  We’ve got to do more to take care of everybody,’ kind of thinking.  I know they don’t understand how important business is for any of the taking care to happen. (laughs)  It really goes in a circle.”

Anna was not optimistic about collaboration given current political and ideological divisions.  She was anxious about the pendulum swing.  Nonetheless, she said, “American values and our respect for one another are vital to our success.  Sometimes that gets out of whack, but it usually comes back.”

Anna is a devoted and active Republican and conservative.  Egan, the young red headed scholar I met with later that same day, is an equally devoted and active progressive who, still too young to vote, gave her energy to supporting the Democratic Party’s ticket.

Egan was raised in Decatur, GA by parents who many would describe as hippies.  She came to consciousness in a community of cooperative living.  From birth she has been part of an ecumenical spiritual group known as “The Community.”  One of the long-time projects of this group has been maintaining a house for low income people who need transitional living situations following rehabilitation programs for addiction.

Sitting in yet another Starbucks, this time near the town square of Decatur, Egan’s emphasis echoed Anna’s:  Listening.  Describing a recent interview for a scholarship, she said, “They asked us all what we thought the greatest threat to America was.  I said it’s our self centeredness, both on an individual and national scale.  We don’t listen very well.”

Considering the barriers to listening and speaking across differences, Egan spoke specifically about her generation. “Here’s something I’m noticing among people my age,” she said.  “I’m 17 – I haven’t lived that long.  I haven’t been hurt that much.  And still I’m astounded by how many people my age are cynical.  So many people automatically assume positive change is impossible. 

“Some people you feel like have a right to feel that way because even in just 17 years they’ve lived horrid lives.  But the cynical people I’m talking about are like me.  They’ve grown up middle class, everything’s fine.  They have a complete family, they’re well supported, and still they’re automatically cynical. 

“I didn’t understand it for the longest time.  Then I saw that it’s probably a coping mechanism because you seem foolish or naïve if you’re optimistic and idealistic.  I feel like I’m a pretty well reasoned person.  I’m not a fool, you know.  But I’ll say something at school that’s pretty optimistic, idealistic; some, ‘I think it’s possible,’ sort of statement and everyone just looks at me like I’m stupid.  Like, ‘Egan, really.  We know you’re a smart girl.  Now, why would you say that?’ Like, ‘Don’t be so naïve.’ 

“I think a good change would be to see that fade away.  No longer would everyone assume that optimism guarantees you’re going to be let down.  Instead, things you think are possible would really happen.  You wouldn’t have to automatically be cynical.  Optimism and idealism would be rewarded with results instead of disappointment.  I think that would be a strong sign of change.”

Listening across difference.  Daring optimism – the optimism Anna referred to as the fuel for change.  Respect for one another.  Listening.  These are some of the things these two women from two vastly distinct generations and political understandings shared in common as they spoke about change.  We may have more to stand on for bridging differences than we think.


  1. How amazing it is to see the theme of more listening, understanding, and communication as the remedies to our world’s ails. All the signs keep pointing to unconditional love as the answer. It seems that rings true whether one is red or green or blue.

  2. my thoughts… off the top of my head…

    1. Nerds ROCK and are an indispensable part of society… am thrilled that you’re picking up on that, as uncomfortable as it may seem.

    2. The attitude of helpfulness is a beautiful one.

    3. When I was a businesswoman, the Republican party seemed approachable to me.

    4. To those who feel financially insecure, the “rich” seem greedy. To those who feel financially secure, the “poor” seem lazy.

    5. Maybe there IS something to be said for Palin..

    6. There’s tradition in both communities… TONS of it

    7. “It really goes in a circle”… Right on, Anna

    8. A society is sick if its 17-year-olds feel out of place for feeling hopeful and optimistic… perhaps a signal to the adults to get out of Eeyore mode.. or, in other words.. to WALK THE TALK

    that’s all… nice post, Mary. Thanks for the read!

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