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Aug. 7, 2020

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Press Talk: Do listening sessions work?

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Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle says listening sessions are very different than anything she's done.
Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle says listening sessions are very different than anything she's done. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

OK, people, listen up!

Just kidding. Far too many of us have no idea how to listen. Mostly, we pretend to listen, but what we’re really doing is waiting for you to shut your yap so we can tell you the way it really is.

I was thinking about “listening” when the county decided to embark on a somewhat ambitious program to hold three listening sessions over the next six weeks. The first one was held Friday, leaving two to go.

I figured it was some sort of gussied-up, rebranded public hearing. Sort of like how trailer houses became mobile homes and then became manufactured homes. But as usual, I was wrong.

Listening sessions, I’m told, are indeed different. A little more on that later. And they are relatively new here in Clark County. In fact, according to County Councilor Temple Lentz, Friday’s session was the first one she has attended.

Now this column isn’t about the county’s listening sessions, but I should briefly update you on why they are being held.

You see, County Council Chair Eileen Quiring — being who she is and all — said something stupid, like she doesn’t see any systemic racism in her neck of the woods. Maybe she simply doesn’t know what that term means. Maybe she’s had too many M&M’s. I don’t know. But before she could dislodge her foot from her pie hole, listening sessions were being scheduled to shed a little light on the topic.

Time will tell if anyone sees the light. Are you listening, Quiring?

OK, enough of that. Back to listening sessions. Look, after dealing with political types during 40 years in newspapers, one becomes a bit skeptical. I mean, are some of these guys for real, or are they just going through the motions? And when it comes to whether they are listening — be honest here — can anybody really tell? I mean, really tell? I posed my hypothesis to Lentz.

“Part of what you’re saying, there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said. “Depending on who’s in office, if they want to listen or don’t want to listen, that’s up to them and the voters to hash that out. I generally have a more hopeful and positive approach on where I believe most of our public servants, especially at the local level, are.”

She said she was looking forward to listening and learning about the topic of racism.

“While I’m aware of systemic racism, I have the privilege of walking around in white skin so I haven’t experienced a lot of these things. I need to hear from those who have this lived experience that I don’t have.”

I also spoke to Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle. Unlike the county, the city already has been involved in a few listening sessions.

“It’s very different than anything I’ve ever done,” she said. “We listen at all different types of events, but this is sort of a sit-down, deep listening. If we had a glass of wine, it would be one of those conversations you would have with a small group of people in the backyard. A conversation after dinner.”

I asked McEnerny-Ogle if she felt any elected officials might simply be going through the motions when they’re sitting in on a listening session.

“Yes, I’m sure they do.”

McEnerny-Ogle gets that public officials will not simply change their minds because they heard an opposing view. The key is to stay open to ideas, she said. And if the information is compelling, then change your mind, she said.

“If you find new information and you think, ‘Why didn’t I know that?’ It’s like learning a new (pie) recipe. I have made pies forever and a day, and I learn something new because someone shared an idea and I was receptive to listening.”

• • •

So how can you determine if someone is really listening? Here are some clues.

Are they making eye contact? Does it look like they’re concentrating? Are they paying attention? And if the rules allow, do they occasionally repeat something you’ve said and ask you a follow-up question?

Now, here’s the problem with the above clues. Politicians know this. And they all can be faked.

So there is no sure-fire test. However, if someone makes a 180-degree turn from their previous position … that’s a pretty good indication they were listening.

But don’t count on something like that. As Lentz told me, if someone comes away with a better understanding of the topic being discussed, that should be considered a win.

So let’s see how these latest listening sessions play out. And as observers of the process, pay close attention. You don’t like what you see? As Lentz noted, there’s always another election just around the corner.

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