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On being heard and listening

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It seems like being heard and listening are two different things these days. The two are inextricably entwined. Conversation — and problem solving — is a two-way street.

Here’s the most recent example of how a public county commissioner meeting goes when a group has drummed up a crowd to speak out. The Monday meeting started at 5:30 p.m. but regular agenda items didn’t even come up for discussion until nearly 8 p.m.

That’s because there was a large crowd on hand to speak out on various issues. We applaud this and are delighted that people are taking an interest in local government.

The problem is, after speaking up, many simply leave. They’ve had their say, so seem to be satisfied. What many don’t do is stay to hear what the county leaders have to say. This didn’t only happen Monday, but is usually the case when a group is riled up about a particular topic.

The county commissioners have a long and commendable history of letting everyone with an opinion speak for 3 minutes at the beginning of the meeting. There is no cap on the number of speakers.

What inevitably happens is that many don’t even stay until all in their group have spoken, let alone stick around to hear what the commissioners have to say. The commissioners often pause their meeting amid the noisy crowd dispersal.

In Monday’s meeting, County Commission Chairman Kevin Ensley’s powerful observation on the COVID-19 pandemic was not heard by the majority of the individuals who filled the meeting room early on.

It’s a shame, because his poignant argument is one people embroiled in the “to mask or not to mask” debate should hear. Ensley said he did not favor a mask mandate, but explained his health situation, his Christian world view and asked whether many of the others who expressed their own Christian values wouldn’t honor him and others with compromised immune systems by “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In our deeply divided country and county, we need to move past differences and search for places where agreement can be found. It is not possible or desirable that everyone should think alike.

But it is indeed possible that we can find compromise and understanding. That will only happen through both speaking out and listening.

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