Listening to Opposing Viewpoints

“Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take others’ concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other.” – Harold Saunders, A Public Peace Process

Listening to Opposing Viewpoints

It’s very difficult to listen to an opposing viewpoint, mainly because other ideas can feel threatening, other people can be hostile, and because the conversation may not feel very open or collaborative. As the recipient, you may feel like you are being recruited rather than having a conversation. Ideas in opposition to one another tend to stay mired at the level of polarity, antagonizing each other, often pushing and pulling each other into a continued stalemate rather than elevating the dialogue. 

It’s often the threat to one’s world view that stops people. Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening, writes: “It’s why people listen to individuals and media that affirm their viewpoints. And it’s also why it’s hard to refrain from jumping in to refute speakers with whom you disagree before hearing them out, much less keep from nonverbally communicating your resistance by folding your arms, sighing, or rolling your eyes. We almost can’t help ourselves because when our deeply held beliefs or positions are challenged, if there’s even a whiff that we might be wrong, it feels like an existential threat.” 

  • When subjects with staunch political views were challenged, their brains lit up “as if they were being chased by a bear.”
  • 51% of university students in one survey thought it was “acceptable” to shout down a speaker with whom they disagreed.
  • 19% supported using violence to prevent a speaker from delivering an address

It’s important to remember that we are all growing and developing. Being willing to change your mind is a natural outplay of that. As we gain understandings, we can shift our thinking, develop new beliefs that can hold us together. Sure, it’s scary to have to reframe ourselves, but we actually do so all the time. Every morning we wake up we have to reestablish ourselves and we have the opportunity every time we gain new insights. It’s all a part of the learning process. 

Kate Murphy writes: “Good listeners have negative capability. They are able to cope with contradictory ideas and gray areas. Good listeners know there is usually more to the story than first appears and are not so eager for tidy reasoning and immediate answers, which is perhaps the opposite to being narrow-minded. Negative capability is also at the root of creativity because it leads to new ways of thinking about things.”

In other words, opposing viewpoints can actually promote creative thinking in us by offering resistance to our habitual patterns. It’s a gift really, productive disagreement, especially when we reach the incredible state of confusion. Sounds confusing, right? Well, just look at the word itself. Confusion means “a pouring together” and contains the idea of mixing and remixing, creating new recipes of possibility. That’s the gift!

But if people feel that it is acceptable to “shout down” the opposition, how can we get students to listen effectively? How can we create an ecology of open-mindedness and collaboration? Well, there has to be a lot of work into pre-listening, all the preparation work that has happen before listening is even possible. One of the keys is to establish the reasons for listening in the first place. For example, Kate Murphy suggests “Listening for evidence that you might be wrong, rather than listening to attack or weaken the opposition.” It’s an important shift of attitude.

There are different levels of listening and when we are trying to listen to opposing viewpoints, we need to be practicing empathetic listening, trying to come to understand how someone else might come to a different conclusion or understanding. But we don’t have to accept those ideas. It’s important to teach students that empathetic listening does not equal agreement. It’s also important to let students know that certain conversations are, by their very nature, going to be difficult—and that even adults struggle to have such conversations.

Here’s where it may get difficult with students because they have to opt in to better listening. They have to want to listen better, which means they need reasons to listen and to speak in class. Why listen at all? Well, I always like to explain to students something like: “If you come to class and do all the speaking, then you will leave with the same ideas you came with. If you come to listen, you can leave class with more ideas. In other words, you will learn.”

Most students want to learn; it’s an innate drive in the human being. Obviously, some students don’t want to be in school, and some can be having a bad day for one reason or another. But generally, students want to learn—and many even want to listen; they just don’t know how to listen effectively. So, of course, we need to teach students how to listen better. 

If after setting a purpose and working on pre-listening skills, there are students who still don’t want to opt into the listening experience, then there are other tasks they can be given, especially in a circumstance like Socratic Seminar. These students can be outer circle observers, sociologists who track the conversation, maybe mapping the dialogue with an app like Equity Maps. They can take notes for students who are absent. They can focus on staying a bit out of the conversation and instead ask questions to help build clarity. And there are many other tasks these students could be given and still be helpful for the conversation. 


Pre-Listening Activities

  • Activate Prior Knowledge
  • Levels of Listening
  • Have students first write about their own beliefs and values
  • Deal with “trigger words” and listening barriers that could cause people to get upset
  • Coach students on how to have a conversation
  • Describe the shape of a conversation
  • Establish a specific purpose
  • Model a growth mindset and how to deal with being wrong and making mistakes


During Conversation

  • Shift to role of facilitator
  • Use a lot of silence and slow conversation down to avoid heat
  • Listening is not agreement
  • Teach students to listen “all the way through” an idea before 
  • Have students ask more questions to activate curiosity
  • View disagreement as an opportunity for growth
  • Opposing views allow us to become more secure in our own positions

After Conversation

  • Debrief with students on how to improve conversation
  • Set group and personal goals


Murphy, Kate. (2019). You’re not listening: what you’re missing and why it matters. New York: Celadon Books.


Image by Tumisu – Pixabay


Active Listening, DEBATE, dialogue, English Class, Listening, Socratic Seminar

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