There will always be people in the world who have different opinions, values, and beliefs from our own. But this shouldn’t stop us from listening to those we know we disagree with, even if we think it’s unlikely that we will change our minds.

During part of the Covid-19 pandemic, I lived with my grandfather in rural Vermont, a small state in the north-east of the US. Being Australian, I had many opportunities to talk to people I would not have otherwise have had a chance to meet. Then, the 2020 presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump rolled around, and it was all anyone could talk about.  

My grandfather’s carer voted for Trump in 2020. I got to know her quite well – she’s a life-long rural north-easterner with a strong belief in individual self-sufficiency. We talked a lot about the differences between where we came from. Politics always comes up in conversation around an election, so naturally it came up that we would support different presidential candidates.  

Most of the media that I consume and the majority of my social circle reinforce my liberal political views. Talking with my grandfather’s carer gave me a different perspective on why someone would vote for Trump. While her reasoning didn’t convince me to change my vote, I came to understand how my life led me to my beliefs on who should be president, and her life led to hers.

These conversations inspired me to think a little more about what we gain when we take the time to listen thoughtfully to people with different views, perspectives and opinions from ours. Here are three reasons (and a few tools) that can help us to gain the full benefit of listening to someone who has different beliefs from ours.

Be curious about reasons: both your own and others

Our values represent what we believe is good and bad in the world. But it’s uncommon for people to ‘choose’ their values. Instead, we are far more likely to adopt the values that our parents have and the dominant values of the communities we grow up in. 

Nevertheless, we hold our values near and dear to our hearts. They form the foundations of our lives and who we are as people. Someone who has different values from us can feel as though they are a world away from us. In reality, it’s likely they just had a different upbringing, with access to different information and abided by different norms. 

One tool we can use for finding the reasons behind certain views is to think like a philosopher and ask “why.” The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is well known for doing this, with what we now call the Socratic method. Essentially, every time a claim is made, we can ask “why” until we get to some root cause or foundational reason. 

The Socratic method can be used to interrogate the reasons behind both our own beliefs and the beliefs of others. Another tool was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, who would ask “why” five times in order to get to the root cause of a problem. The same can be done when trying to get to the root of someone else’s beliefs. Asking “why” of our own beliefs and those of people around us (and people who aren’t around us) is an important part of recognising the differences in our experiences, and ultimately helps to paint a clearer picture of how our values and beliefs develop. 

Be open to a broader understanding of the world

There is no doubt that we live in an increasingly polarised and divided world. Thanks to the internet, diverse and extreme views can now be easily shared, amplifying voices around the world. Often times, this creates echo chambers that shield us (and can even villainise) dissenting voices. 

On top of this, we are creatures of habit. Our social media algorithms show us things we like, we read the same news sources each morning, and we catch up with our friends, who likely have similar values to us. The ‘other perspective’ is often pushed outside of our world view and can feel distant. It’s hard to understand why someone could have such different beliefs to us. 

When I took the time to listen with the intention of understanding, I found that I had significantly more impactful and meaningful conversations. Most of my (limited) knowledge of American politics and sociology comes from a classroom, so it’s theory-based knowledge rather than knowledge grounded in experience. It’s one thing to read statistics and understand a theory in a classroom; it’s an entirely different thing to hear a personal story. 

Listening to my grandfather’s carer talk about her experiences added a level of humanity into what I had learnt in a lecture hall. As a result, I have more empathy and understanding for people who have different life stories, and therefore different perspectives from mine. Being empathetic doesn’t mean necessarily changing our views, but rather humanising and understanding the multiple ways people form their understanding of the world.  

Knowing when not to listen

I don’t want to take away from how difficult it is to really listen to someone who has fundamentally different beliefs from us. It can be emotionally draining and it requires the right headspace. It can also be harmful for individuals of marginalised identities to listen to views that discriminate against them, and be told to give those views equal consideration to non-discriminatory views. 

The Socratic method can also be useful for determining when not to listen. If a belief is founded on a discriminatory, hateful, or untrue statement, it can help to provide grounds for not listening to a person’s point of view. Philosophers sometimes think about this through the framework of intellectual virtues, or qualities in a person that promote the pursuit of truth and intellectual flourishing. These virtues (such as empathy, integrity, intellectual responsibility and love of truth) can help us to discern good from bad foundational reasons that we might find by asking why.

At the end of the day, if we’re in the right headspace and feeling ready to learn, it’s a worthwhile practice for us to learn to listen and understand the reasons why people hold different views. In turn, we can reflect on our own views, and increase our empathy for those with different world views.

To participate in more conversations that challenge our thinking, Festival of Dangerous Ideas returns live 17-18 September at Carriageworks, Sydney. Tickets on sale now.

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What have you learnt by listening to diverse perspectives?