The Lost Art of Listening, with a nod to Senator Kaine

I am in Washington, DC at the annual ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Spring Conference enjoying the cherry blossoms and the fabulous line-up of speakers and presentations. In particular, the plenary sessions yesterday and today were extraordinary, both in their timeliness of topic and thought-provoking quality. Yesterday, the NY Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman received the Section’s highest honor, the 2018 D’Alemberte-Raven Award and then delivered the Frank Sander Lecture. He talked about how dispute resolvers can respond to the evolving conflicts in our fast-changing world. He spoke brilliantly about old and new political axes, three types of “climate” changes (environmental, political and economic) and the importance of “resilience and propulsion.”

This morning’s plenary was divided into two programs: first, a panel of legal, policy and military experts who were involved one way or another in resolving the multi-party, public policy dispute of repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law; and second, Senator Tim Kaine on resolving disputes in these complex and heavily polarized times. Senator Kaine talked about the “lost art of listening,” as he has observed that to be, at least in part, one of the root causes of that polarization.

As he was speaking, it struck me that, although Friedman yesterday and today’s earlier panel did not use that exact phraseology, they also were bemoaning the lost art of listening. One of Friedman’s theories regarding the 2016 election outcome stems from people hating other people because they don’t listen to them; and from voting out those who they perceive as condescending to them. The panel on the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal referred to the need to bridge the divide between the constituencies who strongly opposed gays serving in the military and the military personnel who have been saying all along that sexuality does not impact military preparedness; i.e., listen to each other.

And then I looked around the room, and saw how many attendees were half-listening, and half multi-tasking on some electronic device or another. (Me included, mea culpa.) Indeed, I have attended presentations at prior ADR conferences regarding the deleterious effects of what I label the “device” generation, who cannot fully engage with each other unless they are simultaneously on a device.

What do I make of all this? And how does this all connect? In the crudest terms, we have GOT to teach the next generation of lawyers (and perhaps gently remind the current generation) about the absolute, crucial importance of listening.

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