Perhaps you have seen the intentionally provocative video circulating on the Internet of a young woman complaining about an aching pain in her head. If you would like to watch for yourself, just Google “It’s NOT about the nail!” As the scene plays out, it is obvious she has a large nail in her forehead. Listening to her complain about her debilitating headaches and how her sweaters snag when she pulls them over her head conjures up images that make it painful to listen. Trying to help, her boyfriend offers, “I think I see the problem, there is a nail sticking out of your head.” She immediately jumps down his throat angrily shouting, “It’s NOT about the nail!”
While obviously contrived, it points out that people desperately want to and need to be heard and validated. It is so hard to listen to a person complain when we know what they should do. Here in the South, I have come to learn we use the expression “well bless your heart” to affirm the person. I have grown to understand that the underlying thought, not spoken, is “you idiot!”
Let’s face it, friends. It is so hard to sit quietly and listen to another person complain when it is so clear to us what the problem is and how it should be solved. Sadly today, too often, dialogue is not accepted on important issues. Debate is no longer welcome.
As just one illustration, consider the reaction to a tweet from Harald Uhlig, a University of Chicago professor, indicating that the Black Lives Matter movement “torpedoed itself, with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice.” Instead of defunding, Uhlig suggested, “train them better.”
Hundreds of people then signed a petition demanding that Uhlig resign. Even prominent economists like Janet Yellen and Paul Krugman joined the mob. Krugman called Uhlig, “another privileged white man who evidently cannot control his urge to belittle the concerns of those less fortunate.”
Today’s racial tensions are a lot like the “It’s not about the nail!” dramatization. It no longer matters that we care and try our best to help fix the problem. Correcting those complaining only heightens their anger. They want to be heard above all else and we have heard this so many times before it is very hard to listen to it and not try to just confront and solve the issue.
So, how do we heal a polarized nation where kneeling during our National Anthem greatly offends some but not all and protests against police turn somehow into justified burning and looting of innocent store owners? We seem to be at war fueled by a militant insistence on self-worth. Dialogue is no longer acceptable: former President Obama’s term “woke” meaning we have a new awareness, has now devolved to “cancel culture.”
I know it’s hard, but maybe we need to restart with Stephen Covey’s Habit No. 5: Seek first to understand before we ask to be understood.” My wife Susan has taught me that the skill of listening is one of the most important life skills we can all learn, but it’s a hard skill to master. We tend to stop listening once we think we have the right answer to the problem. After all, we are superior to those we are listening too, right? Nope. That is the problem. The ability to hear is a gift. The willingness to listen is a choice…a very difficult choice.