A Social-Emotional Learning Expert Explains Why ‘Unity’ Is So Elusive

In his Inaugural Address last month, President Joe Biden spoke at length about unity. He mentioned the word 11 times in his 19-minute speech, as he implored Americans to set aside their differences and come together as one nation.

Biden argued that unity offers the best way forward if our country hopes to heal from the many crises it currently faces.

“With unity we can do great things. Important things,” Biden said. “We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice. We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world.”

That’s a tall order, though. And even Biden admitted the practical challenges.

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy,” he said. “I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial. Victory is never assured.”

Like millions of Americans, Mylien Duong was listening to Biden’s speech that morning. She was getting ready for work on the West Coast while streaming the inauguration ceremony on her laptop in the bathroom, listening to the musical performers, the poet and the new president as she prepared for another work day.

But she noticed something in Biden’s address that most people probably missed. Duong is a clinical psychologist and social-emotional learning research scientist at the nonprofit Committee for Children, and she heard in Biden’s words a plea for people to start listening to each other—with the goal not of changing their minds but of understanding them—and for people to have more empathy for those who are different from us, to resolve our conflicts. This reminded Duong of the work she does in schools, teaching educators and students the importance of those critical social-emotional skills.

On this week’s podcast, Duong discusses how Americans became so divided, what it would take to achieve Biden’s vision of unity, and how the internet is making things like listening to and understanding one another so much more difficult—for adults and children alike.

Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What stood out to you about the inauguration and President Biden’s speech? How did his comments resonate with the work that you do?

Mylien Duong: He spent a lot of time in that speech talking about the need for us to unite as Americans. And he really spent a lot of time talking about the price that we’ve paid for the division and the bitterness that’s been a part of the political dialogue in this country. And he’s actually not wrong. The research really does show that there is this deepening divide in American politics.

The Pew Research Center has followed these trends over time. In 2019, they showed that over the last few decades, Americans have been developing more negative views of other [political] parties. So in 2019, 45 percent of Democrats said that they would be unhappy if their child married a Republican, and 35 percent of Republicans say that they would be unhappy if their child married a Democrat.

Compare that to five decades ago and it was 4 percent. So 4 percent of Republicans and Democrats in 1968 said that they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the other party.

So he really pointed out that America is facing a major crisis of partisanship. And I think what he did was he called on basic social-emotional learning skills in helping us repair and rebuild. He said, “Let’s begin to listen to one another again, let’s hear one another, see one another respect one another.” And that really resonated with the work that I do in schools.

Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Those things sound simple, but are they actually?

A lot of people think that they are listening fully, and often they’re not. Listening is really a very complicated skill. So let me tell you a story from my clinical practice that I hope will convey how difficult listening really is.

I’ve done a fair share of couples therapy. So, you know, husbands and wives, husbands and husbands, wives and wives would come in with their marital problems. And one of the first things that we work on in almost all of the cases is basic listening skills. We start out with this exercise where one person would talk, and their partner’s job—their entire job—was to just listen and then repeat back to their partner what they think they heard and then ask their partner, “Did I get it right?” So they had to wait their turn to talk, until their partner felt like, “OK, they really get it. They understand where I’m coming from.” It would take hours, sometimes.

I have a Ph.D. in psychology and I’ve been a practicing psychologist for 10 years. And I still feel like my listening skills are constantly developing. This is like any other social-emotional learning skill: It sounds simple, but the development and the mastery of it is really a lifelong process.

I think that as a society, we also tend to conflate understanding someone’s perspective with agreeing with them. So we have a really hard time living in that gray zone where you can say, “I see where you’re coming from, and it makes sense to me,” and also, “I see it differently, and my perspective also makes sense.” And I think that that gray zone is where true listening really is.

A lot of the time when we think we’re listening, we’re actually distracted. Let’s say we actually managed to look up from our computer and put our phones down. But even with that, when we’re listening to somebody talk, we’re most of the time already thinking about how we want to reply, because we naturally, as humans, want to be heard. And it’s that desire of wanting the other person to understand us. That’s primarily what gets in the way of listening and makes it so difficult.

Can you say more about the difference between understanding someone and agreeing with them?

I think the thing to remember is that our opinions and our beliefs always come from our experiences. It’s hard to remember, when we’re thinking about other people, that their opinions and beliefs also come from their experiences. If you come in with the assumption that everybody’s point of view developed from their experiences, which are valid, that can help you to understand how you could have arrived at different conclusions because you’ve had different experiences.

I imagine this is a skill that starts pretty early—or could start early. In your view, at what age should we be teaching kids to listen with the intent of understanding someone?

It’s actually a really complex skill that has a lot of layers. We’re born with a natural, emotional empathy. They’ve done these experiments, you know, from the 1950s and 1960s, where they put babies into a room where they hear another baby crying, and babies will start crying too, when they hear another newborn crying. This is one of the earliest precursors of emotional empathy, but it’s actually not until about age 4 that kids start to realize, “What I think may be different from what you think.”

In our Second Step program at the Committee for Children, we teach kids about kindness as early as preschool, but it continues on, so we start to introduce the idea that different people can have different wants and needs starting in the second grade. As they get more advanced in age, in grades four and five, we start to get into, “How do you take someone else’s perspective? Why is empathy important in friendships? How do you get along with people when you don’t like them?”

And if a child masters that skill, what do they stand to benefit from it long-term?

These skills have so many different benefits for kids and adults in terms of their relationships, in terms of their learning and achievement. It’s pretty obvious to see how listening to understand is going to help you be a better communicator, to help you have more empathy. It tends to increase kindness and what’s called “prosocial behavior,” which is basically helping other people. It’s actually a target skill in a lot of programs for kids who struggle with aggression because listening and perspective-taking and empathy are things that tend to decrease aggression. And the thing that I find most interesting, especially in the context that we’re in right now, is that listening skills can reduce prejudice, and it can also promote tolerance and conflict resolution, which we all need a bit of right now.

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