From the Editor: Can we really listen to each other?

November 11, 2011

Paula MinaertBY PAULA MINAERT — I attend many city council meetings for my job. They can be interesting and they can be tedious. And sometimes I find them distressing because of the tension I see in the members’ exchanges with each other.

I’m not talking about healthy disagreements over issues. I’m talking about elected officials interrupting each other, bristling at others’ remarks, taking offense and even, on occasion, shouting at each other.boxing gloves fight stock

After one such meeting, I thought: They all have the good of the city at heart. I just wish it weren’t so hard for them to hash things out. But then I remembered a friend of mine, who holds views very different from mine. I accept climate change; she doesn’t. She prizes individual responsibility and effort; I value social justice. When we talk about those issues, we tend to get upset. And neither of us has succeeded in changing the other’s mind.

I got some insight recently into why this is so, in a recent article in The Economist magazine. The article explains why we cling so fiercely to our opinions — whether it’s jobs and welfare (on the macro scale) or traffic and trash (on the micro level). Apparently a very old part of the brain, the amygdala, plays a part.

The amygdala, when presented with new information, actually sends messages to the rest of our brain telling us to resist taking in anything that conflicts with what we already know. It all happens on the unconscious level. In primitive times, it helped us survive.

Today, it’s what makes us react with an automatic “That’s ridiculous!” or “How can you say that?” when we hear something that doesn’t fit into our view of things.

This phenomenon, then, explains in part why it’s often so hard for people to work together. The council members are different individuals, brought together in a common task. They bring different perspectives to the table. They’re a mixed bag, because they reflect our city.

Our residents are all ages and races and ethnicities. They work at all kinds of jobs, from plumbing and painting to clerking and teaching. They are liberals and conservatives, believers and secular humanists, pro-development and not so pro-development.

This variety is one of the reasons I like Hyattsville, by the way. I think all of us need to be exposed to people (and ideas and perspectives) different from our own. Yes, it’s more comfortable sticking with like-minded people, but then we don’t grow as much. We can become rigid, ossified. And we also run the risk of rejecting out of hand an idea or a solution that might be just what’s needed to solve a problem.

None of us has all the answers, so it behooves us to listen to what other people say. Let’s try to switch off the automatic pilot.

 

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