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Listening First

Listening first: A lesson from Lincoln

by Jose J. Ruiz | Alder Koten

Abraham Lincoln led the country during one of the most significant periods in the history of the United States: the Civil War.  Slavery was at the center of the conflict.  Between the years of 1500 and 1820 approximately twelve and one-half million people arrived in the newly discovered land of the Americas.  Only two and a half million were Europeans.  Nearly ten million were slaves kidnapped mainly from Africa.  A significant part of the growing economy during the period between 1500 and 1920 depended on the large-scale agricultural labor provided by slaves (1). During the 1860 presidential election the Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln, supported the banning of slavery in the United States. The ban was perceived as an anti-constitutional aggression by the Southern states that depended greatly on slave labor.  When the Republican Party secured a majority of the electoral votes and Lincoln was elected the first Republican president in 1861 seven states with agricultural based economies formed the Confederacy and seceded from the Union (1).  Lincoln pledged to go to war to protect the federal union in 1861. The civil war between the Confederate and Union states ensued. Many perceived Lincoln as a moderate, thoughtful and soft-spoken leader who drove hard with a soft hand.

The paramount value of American Culture is individualism, the outlook that stresses independence, self-reliance, and individual liberty (2). An argument can be constructed for each of the sides of the civil war to apply this statement. The Confederate states defended their independence, self-reliance, and individual liberty to use slavery in support of their primary economy.  The Union defended the fundamental rights of the slaves to be independent, self-reliant, and free.  Lincoln was firm in his conviction, but he faced the barriers created by the social and economic consequences of abolishing slavery in the Confederate states.  Effective listening often depends on what is going on in the head and heart of those communicating, rather than what is taking place on the outside (3). Lincoln needed to understand what was taking place inside the head and heart of all parties involved in order to create a group listening environment that could break down barriers to decision-making.

The Lesson: A Patient Listener

In the opening scene of the movie Lincoln by Spielberg (2012) rain and fog engulf a Union Army camp and Lincoln is seen sitting on a bench speaking to two black soldiers. The president begins the conversation with a simple “What’s your name, soldier?”  The soldiers respond and lead into a conversation that discusses the inequality within the Union Army. Lincoln’s second intervention in the discussion is “How long have you been a soldier?” He listens attentively and speaks mostly to ask questions. The scene portrays a side of Lincoln that is willing to spend valuable time in what appears to be a straightforward, trivial, and uncomplicated conversation. It represents a man that is in a position to speak and take advantage of the opportunity to preach and motivate troops with his message but chooses to ask simple questions and listen. He appears relaxed, unrushed, and with time to listen. One crucial time to be an effective listener is when another person is discussing a problem with you that he or she feels strongly about (3). Lincoln could have spent time telling the soldiers about the importance of the principles they were fighting for. He could have repeated some of his words from the Gettysburg address highlighting the importance of liberty and equality. Instead, he chose to listen providing the men the spotlight of the conversation and the unspoken message that they were significant enough to be listened to, with patience, by their commander in chief.

Lincoln’s conversation with the soldiers also provides a glimpse of the complex dynamics and ambiguity Lincoln faced. Most decisions involve choices among two or more plausible, possible, worthy options. At least this is the case for people who have rejected wrongdoing. The question is, which is the best choice? (4).  Lincoln was not facing sharply defined questions or answers. It was seldom a simple choice between two worthy options. The two soldiers fighting for equality were, in fact, suffering inequality within their army. “(The Second Kansas Colored Infantry) killed a thousand rebel soldiers, sir. They were very brave. And making three dollars less each month than white soldiers” said one soldier and Lincoln only responded “I am aware of it” after a short pause. Lincoln did not feel compelled to justify or explain why the discrepancy existed. He simply acknowledged the situation and expressed his empathy through his few words. His conviction on the topic of slavery and equality were strong, but he acknowledged the challenges and the steps required to achieve his ultimate goal.

Lincoln was patient enough to convey the unspoken message and strong enough to understand that not every question requires a detailed justified answer. Listening and acknowledging can sometimes be the strongest answer.



(1) McGrann, S. (2015). An American Tragedy: How Slavery Led to the Civil War. Seattle, WA: Amazon Digital Services

(2) Burley-Allen, M. (1995). Listening: The Forgotten Skill—A Self-Teaching Guide. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

(3) Sparough, J., Manney, J., Hipskind, T. (1986) What’s Your Decision? How to Make Choices with Confidence and Clarity. Chicago: Loyola Press.


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