Dear Drama Observers,
In April and May of 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized what became known as the Birmingham Campaign, a coordinated effort to protest the practice of segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.
Martin Luther King had called Birmingham the nation’s most segregated city and hoped that mass demonstrations could pressure the city’s power bosses into making long-awaited changes. Thousands participated in non-violent protests and many were arrested on trumped up charges, filling the local jails to capacity.
You’ve probably seen those black and white newsreels of demonstrators being confronted with police dogs and mowed down with fire hoses. This is when all that happened.
Watching the events unfold on national television, Attorney General Robert Kennedy dispatched Justice Department official, Burke Marshall, to Birmingham in hopes of brokering a peaceful settlement. On the one side were campaign leaders advocating for civil rights, and on the other side were intransient segregationists determined to maintain the status quo. Needless to say, tensions were stratospheric.
Surprisingly, Marshall succeeded in striking a deal that gave King and the other campaign organizers much of what they wanted. Jailed protesters were released on their own recognizance. In short order, lunch counters, restrooms, and drinking fountains were desegregated. Hiring practices were altered. In September of that year, Birmingham’s schools were integrated.
Despite these encouraging breakthroughs, all was not well as resistance to change became even more escalated and violent. Four African American girls were killed in September when Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, an event which contributed to the city’s scornful nickname, Bombingham. The Birmingham Campaign had its successes, but progress advanced in fits and starts for a very long time.
I’m recounting this historical event to highlight one particular aspect. That is: How did Burke Marshall pull it off? What happened in that meeting room that caused hidebound segregationists to accede to the campaign’s demands?
Did Marshall overwhelm them with the strength of his logic? Did he threaten them in some way? Did he ridicule them into submission? Did he mimic one of those Julia Sugarbaker take-downs where his opponents were left stunned and speechless? Did he utilize some sort of Jedi-like power to transform their intransience into acquiescence? What exactly did he do?
The short answer to what he did is this: he listened.
To be certain, there was more to it than simply that. But the power of listening evidently played a significant role. Referring to Marshall, one of the staunch segregationists in attendance observed, “There is a man who listens. I had to listen back and, I guess, I grew up a little.”
But how could listening have diffused such an explosive situation? I’d like to make several observations about the power of listening and then brings us back to this question.
Listening Builds or Destroys Relationships
“It is impossible,” said Swiss physician and author Paul Tournier, “to over-emphasize the immense need people have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood.” The human capacity to form close relationships begins as early as infancy through the mother’s empathic attunement to her newborn. Perhaps few things in life are as emotionally satisfying as being heard and understood by someone we care about. Listening builds connective relational tissue.
But the converse is also true. Perhaps nothing hurts more deeply than to be summed up inaccurately and to be given no way to correct the misperception. The stance, “My mind is made up, my conclusions about you are chiseled in concrete, and nothing you say will change my opinion,” is emotionally devastating. Connective relational tissue is shredded when people refuse to listen.
The Listening-Tension Seesaw
Those who work in trauma and recovery understand this axiom: When threat reactions elevate, reasoning responses decline. When the part of your brain designed to protect you from danger becomes activated, the problem-solving part of your brain goes offline. That’s why the advice is often given: Don’t make big decisions in the midst of a crisis.
That said, those who work in emotionally-charged situations are trained to deactivate their threat reactions so they can maintain calm in the midst of crisis. That’s very counterintuitive and doesn’t come naturally.
When Captain Sullenberger landed his plane on the Hudson River in 2009, he was asked how he did something so heroic. He responded that he didn’t see it as heroic because they train for such scenarios. When the crisis occurred, he tipped his seesaw accordingly. He kept his threat reactions deescalated so that his ability to think reasonably was kept online.
Listening Precedes Resolving
There are several steps involved in achieving mediated solutions. One of those steps involves listening—where both sides understand the other side’s position and why taking that position is important to them. Mediators understand that when people feel heard and understood, the tensions deescalate. So important is this facet that mediators won’t let the process advance until such validation has been achieved.
What’s true in mediation is true in all close relationships. No relational problems are ever solved when people feel unheard or misunderstood.
So, Back to Marshall
This all helps us understand why Marshall’s listening would’ve had such a bomb-diffusing effect. I can only assume that these things happened in that room:
- While he completely disagreed with the segregationists, Marshall listened to their views and sought to understand their concerns (“There is a man who listens.”)
- Being heard deescalated the tensions.
- Being heard resulted in reciprocal listening (“I had to listen back”)
- Listening paved the way for a reasonable solution (“I guess I grew up a little.”)
A Pandemic Application
In the midst of what will arguably be the most significant crisis of our lifetimes, tensions are once again stratospheric. And when threats go up, reasoning goes down and listening along with it. And when people stop listening to each other, tensions can only stay elevated.
Listening first and concluding later rather than the other way around is needed now perhaps more than ever. May it be said of all of us, “There is a person who listens.”
Till next week.