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Boise State’s experiment in listening: Can an old-fashioned notion help heal our modern world?

Guest writer Bill Manny is an executive producer at Idaho Public Television

Greg Carr thinks often about his boyhood in Idaho Falls, Idaho. That look back helps him see a possible way forward for our divided society.

“I grew up with the lessons of my parents,” said Carr, a tech pioneer turned philanthropist and a 2015 Boise State Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. “Help your neighbor. You don’t ask what political party your neighbor’s in, in order to bring them some soup, right, if they’re not feeling well?”

Could a version of “soup theory” offer a possible remedy for today’s social and political ills?

Boise State President Marlene Tromp created the Institute for Advancing American Values in 2021 to inspire dialogue among people from multiple viewpoints. She thought of Idaho Listens as a natural next step and reached out to Carr and Andrew Finstuen, dean of Boise State’s Honors College, to try this experiment in returning dignity and respect to our public discourse. They invited us at Idaho Public Television to document the project.

The premise is deceptively simple: If you listen to someone talk about their life and values, it’s hard to see that person as someone to be mocked, or an enemy to be scorned.

“It made me sad over the past five, 10 years to see the divisions, and everybody thinking that they have to battle with everybody else,” Carr told us. “If you’re friends with the person who’s different than you are, I mean, isn’t that a higher-level goal of humanity?”

For Finstuen, listening is a matter of human dignity.

“When you listen to someone, you are taking the time to acknowledge them as another human being … And the respect and the dignity that goes along with that, people are hungry for and ready for.”

“Being kind to people is not the same as saying ‘I agree with that.’ It’s saying, ‘Hey, we’re all humans.’ Let’s just get people listening to each other. And that’s the beginning of friendship.” Greg Carr

Tromp welcomed the work of “grappling with difficult ideas.” We can “Disagree with each other, learn from each other – even in that disagreement – and try to move forward and develop meaningful responses. It is fundamentally the work of higher education to bring people together in this way,” she said.

In fall 2022, Idaho Listens gathered 11 speakers to address an audience in the Stueckle Sky Center on the Boise State campus. Listeners were asked to remain silent, without cheering, clapping or questioning. Over 90 minutes, those speakers shared a range of inspiring and moving stories. You can see all 90 minutes online, or watch Idaho Public Television’s 25-minute take on the project.

But for me, the biggest surprise wasn’t the stories. It was the silence. Silence as the speakers finished and returned to their seats. Silence as the next speaker came to the front.

Carr was just as moved at the power of that silence.

“Let’s face it, that’s not a new idea,” Carr said. “For thousands of years, really wise people, sages and saints, have used silence, haven’t they? To sit and think and calm down and get the roar out of your head. So I think that’s going to become an important part of every Idaho Listens event.”

Idaho Listens is replicating the project on campus and around the state. We at Idaho Public Television hope to find and follow other experiments where people of good will in Idaho work to reclaim public discourse.

“I think people stop talking to one another when they don’t believe there’s a reason to hope anymore,” Tromp said. “If we help people see that there’s still reason to have hope, it opens up the door to new possibilities.”

Portrait of speakers at Idaho Listens' fall 2022 event.
Idaho Listens speakers front row from left: Rebecca Miles, Michelle Kwak, Shadi Ismael, Laura Alvarez Schrag, Brad Blair, Rebecca Evans. Back row from left: Jarom Jemmett, Rod Carr, Bart Davis

Editor’s note: Boise State hosted additional Idaho Listens events in Idaho Falls and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho in 2023.