Listen to People You Don’t Like

I recently listened to an interview with Glenn Beck. As you might guess, I’m not a huge fan of the guy, and I was expecting that the interview wouldn’t change my perceptions of him.

Having attempted to listen deeply with an open mind, I can say with some degree of confidence that I still disagree with a lot of what he seems to think, and I think many of his views are misguided. In some ways, he still seems like kind of a jerk. However, I also now see him more as a human, trying his best in the world to make it a better place. In a few areas of his life, I even kind of like the guy.

Yes, you read that correctly: I think there are likeable, admirable aspects of Glenn Beck.

A similar experience happened listening to interviews with Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Tony Robbins, and just listening to Tim Ferriss himself, who until recently I had taken as no more than a self-absorbed, hedonistic jerk (based on what little I read from the beginning of his book The Four-Hour Workweek). I still don’t particularly like the guy, but I can see him and everyone else a little bit more clearly now. They’re all human beings, like me. They’re all just trying to make their way in the world, none of them seem particularly mean-spirited, and they all, like me, have a passion for making the world a better place. Our methods are very different, and even our vision of what exactly “better” means are different, but I think there are more commonalities amongst us all than difference.

It’s so easy to go through life and, in your interactions with others with whom you have a difficult time getting along, walk away at the end of the day and say “I don’t like them. They’re mean, full of themselves, annoying, they’re making my job harder, their expectations are too high.” But what if we could see beneath all of our vastly differing, sometimes-contentious exteriors and see each other how we all are, beneath the thick layers of upbringing and teachings and environments?

I’m reminded of the classic Flannery O’Connor short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it; it’s a quick read), particularly the end of the story, when the grandmother has her moment of clarity and suddenly exclaims to The Misfit, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” A few moments later, The Misfit says to his counterparts, “She would of been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Last year, at the suggestion of just about every productivity and self-development blog and book out there, I tried reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I couldn’t get more than a few pages in. I looked at the chapter titles (“Be Proactive,” “Put First Things First,” “Think Win/Win,” and worst of all… “Synergize”). I started reading about his Christian faith in the introduction, his apparently-perfect family life… I slammed the book shut and said “NOPE. This guy and I are just too different. There’s no way I can see eye-to-eye with what he’s trying to tell me.”

But I kept hearing all of these great things about the book. I thought, there must be something I missed in there. So I gave it another shot, and just finished it the other day. I think, in all honesty, it might become one of my favorite books. The language he uses is full of clichés and anachronisms and corporate lingo buzzword salad. But beneath all of that, his messages are something very special. They’re universal, yet at the same time unique, something I hadn’t quite seen anywhere else. To use some of Covey’s clichés, I had a “paradigm shift.” It was “an idea whose time had come.” He calls it “habits of highly effective people.” I might call it “ideas for living a fulfilling and purposeful life.” Or something. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Reading and listening to those we don’t think we like can only make us better people. There might be a tendency to fear that ideas can infect us, change us for the worse, like Communism was thought to do during the Red Scare.

But on the individual level, we can seek to simply understand each other. We can listen deeply and intently and truly, not just looking for that moment when one can reinforce their own views (“Ha! I knew Glenn Beck was a jerk!”), but to understand why people are the way they are, where they come from, what makes them who they are, what their concerns are.

It can only help us grow, as long as we hold on to our principles, whatever they may be, and keep a critical but open mind, refraining from any knee-jerk reactions. In practicing empathy, we can better understand each other and the world, and perhaps together help make it a better place.

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