How To Listen When You Disagree: A Lesson From The Republican National Convention

It’s easier to unfriend, unfollow, and tune out when we hear what we don’t want to hear. In an ideal world, we tell ourselves, everyone would share our exact viewpoint. In a perfect universe, we say, we’d all think the same way and want the same things. There would be no war, no strife, no struggle…

The thing is, when we stop listening, we stop connecting. And when we stop connecting, we stop growing.

Urban Confessional founder, WANT Man, and former WANTcast guest Benjamin Mathes travels the world holding up signs that say “Free Listening,” inviting whoever longs to be heard (which is really all of us, isn’t it?) an ear and an open heart to be able to do so.

But Ben doesn’t just stand on any corner and offer free listening. Nope – *in addition to* standing in front of your normal boardwalks, parks, and busy streets, Ben and Urban Confessional actively seek out the places where anger and fear might be the emotions running the show. Last week, Ben recounted his experience at the Republican National Convention – not to sway anyone’s political views (or even get political at all), but as a reminder that disagreement is no excuse not to love. Because sometimes, we forget that all people need is an ear to tell their story. Here’s his:


She was just staring at me.

She had something to say, and I could tell she was curious about the Free Listening sign, but she didn’t seem to have to courage to speak to me.


So, I waited. Nowhere to be, and all day to get there.

It was so hot outside.

Finally, she walked up, and like a young warrior preparing for battle, she said:

“I don’t usually do this, and I know this isn’t a hot button topic anymore… But, I think abortion is wrong. It’s not a form of birth control, and people who have them should be arrested for murder.”

Most protesters at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland were yelling about Donald Trump—for or against—all part of this beautiful circus of free speech.

She was different. There was no circus here. She was serious.

I had been Free Listening at the RNC for a few hours, and most people who spoke with me told me about their families, their jobs, and the things that brought them to Cleveland.

No one had opened up about a serious, but controversial issue.

But here she was.

It was so hot outside.


Lets face it, it’s loud out there. It seems like everyone has something to say and somewhere to say it.

Our Facebook feeds are littered with articles, posts, and images from all types of people. For some of us, this is difficult to handle, so we edit out the ones we disagree with until our feed looks more like an echo board our of own thoughts.

If we’re not careful, we’ll treat people this way. Editing out the one’s we disagree with until we’re surrounded by people who are just like us.

Then we wonder why we’re so divided.

I know what you’re thinking, though: “It’s my feed, I’ll block who I want. I shouldn’t have to be offended. I don’t have time for that. Life is too short. I only want to see what I want to see.”

If we’re not careful, we’ll treat people this way.

Then wonder why we’re so divided.


If there’s one question I get asked more than any other question, it’s this: How do I listen to someone when I disagree with them?

There are many ways to answer this. It takes a lot of forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage to listen in the face of disagreement. I could write pages on each of these principles, but lets start with the one thing that makes forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage possible.

We must work to hear the person not just the opinion.

My friend, Agape, says it like this:
Hear the biography, not the ideology. -Agape Click To Tweet

When someone has a point of view we find difficult to understand, disagreeable, or even offensive, we must look to the set of circumstances that person has experienced that resulted in that point of view.

Get their story, their biography, and you’ll open up the real possibility of an understanding that transcends disagreement.

Like the roots of a tree, our stories, which can create our beliefs, are completely unique, and also connected. It is through story that we can find common ground enough to co-exist in the face of great, often necessary, tension.

When you find yourself in disagreement, just ask one question:

“Will you tell me your story? I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”


As she spoke to me about her beliefs on abortion, I wanted to stop her, and tell her my story.

I’ve sat with two loved ones as they suffered through the difficult decision and consequences of ending a pregnancy. It was a brutal human experience, and gave me an insight to something I never expected to witness.

In moments like that, “choice” doesn’t seem to be the right word.

So, when she told me they should be arrested for terminating a pregnancy, the familiar burn of disagreement started to fire in me.

There were so many things I wanted to say. I wanted to change her mind, to argue, to disagree. Its a natural response.

But, if my story brought me to my beliefs, then I needed to know how her story brought her to her beliefs.

“When you listen, you may learn something new”
— Dali Lama

So, I asked:

“Thank you for sharing that. Tell me your story? I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”

She seemed surprised by my interest.

“Why? It doesn’t matter. You’re sign said Free Listening, so I gave you something to listen to.”

“Give me more to listen to.”

“They should be locked up! It’s wrong. It’s not right to go out and sleep with who ever, then just vacuum away the result like it never happened.”

She paused…then inhaled the entire world.

“And it’s not fair. All I’ve ever wanted to be is a mom. My whole life, I knew I was meant to have children. Then, when I was 18—18!–the doctor told me I’d never have children. My ovaries were damaged, or missing…it doesn’t matter which. I kept it a secret, and when my husband found out, he left me. I’m alone, my body doesn’t work, I’m old…who will ever love me…”

I wondered if she could hear my heart breaking.

“…so, I guess I get upset when I see people who can get pregnant, who can have kids, who’s bodies work…who can be moms…and they just choose not to…”

Sometimes, there’s nothing to “disagree” with.

I didn’t need to be right.

I just needed to be there.

She wiped away a few tears, gave me a hug, and thanked me for listening.

She exhaled, and walked back into the RNC circus.

Maybe one day, she’ll hear my story. But today, it was my turn to hear hers.

I hope she felt loved.

I didn’t need to be right. I just needed to be there. - @bcmathes Click To Tweet

The truth is, if our love can hold space for paradox, tension, and disagreement, there’s room for all types of beliefs and opinions.

Division is a choice.

Life isn’t a Facebook feed.

Our love, our listening, must bring in, not edit out.

Dare to listen, dare to be quiet, dare to seek understanding; in the end, its the people we need to love, not their opinions.


Our love, our listening, must bring in, not edit out. - @bcmathes Click To Tweet

To join Urban Confessional or host your own Free Listening event in your city, click here for all the ways to get involved.

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