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Is active listening the bedrock of social change?

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

It’s one thing to agree on the kind of world we want to live in; it’s another to agree the means of getting there. But the ways we work with one another in the process can make or break the most beautiful visions and most effective organising methods. It’s time we take our relationships seriously. Active listening is a good place to start…

We could all learn to listen better

I have limited patience these days for discussing big picture politics; the ‘general aims for the world’ kinda stuff. I don’t find conversations at this level offer a great deal of insight into the people you’re talking to, their motivations, and how they might go about creating the world they believe in. They are so abstract as to be practically meaningless, beyond establishing a broad set of shared values.

Another level down, is the ‘how we organise ourselves’ question, which I’ve put a lot of space on this blog into over the years. Beyond our general political and social aims, are we able to talk about the structures that will get us there and how to avoid thinking we can replicate the organising structures of the present, without also replicating their disastrous consequences?

These are clearly important conversations to be having, as far less creativity seems to go into re-imagining our organising structures, than goes into re-imagining the ‘end results’ of social change (as though there is some ‘final stage’ of human evolution!). But these conversations, too, don’t tell us enough… And they don’t push us enough. At least not on their own.

I’ve had too many experiences of organising with people with whom I had a shared vision of the future and a broadly-agreed approach for getting there, and yet, antagonism came to characterise our working relationships, or those of others we felt we’d seen eye-to-eye with. (I’ve experienced this in movements and organisations, both, so it transcends the dysfunctions of most hierarchical bureaucracies.)

Introducing: Active Listening!

This is what led me to the radically-simple concept of ‘active listening,’ and applying to a 5-week evening course with Jonathan Kahn on the subject.

Active listening and peer coaching feel like the most intimate iterations of the politics and values I try to spend much of my life pursuing. If we’ve agreed – vaguely, at least – on ‘the big picture’ and have agreed on systems of non-hierarchy and decentralisation of power to help get us there, I feel that these are the personal and interpersonal tools that we need to grow such systems and keep them working through the rocky waters that inevitably lay ahead.

Active listening is not complicated, at least as far as the practicalities of it go. It’s about changing the ways we engage in conversation, to help the other person realise themselves more fully and most of it is about pausing, asking questions and clarifying intent and feeling. But doing it is tricky. Simple techniques likes ‘leaving someone five seconds of silence before you reply to them,’ can challenge deeply held cultural assumptions, as well as some of our own insecurities. These things can feel trivial when we are thinking of the bigger problems in the world, but are too-often – left unaddressed – the stumbling blocks that keep us from realising any smaller-or-larger scale change efforts that we take part in. If we aren’t able to be aware of the countless pieces of personal hurt and negative social conditioning that we bring into all of our organising relationships, odds are considerably worse that those organising relationships will bear fruit.

Jonathan is serious about changing the ways we interact with one another. He gives what can feel like immense amounts of time to exploring how body language, tone, silence and well-placed questions, can change the ways we engage with one another for the better. In theory, it can be hard to see the practical value of examining such details, but in practice, the results can be remarkable. The looks on the faces of at least two of the people with whom I was able to practice these techniques, told me that in my conscious silence, paired with a few well-placed questions, I had offered them something they weren’t getting, but clearly appreciated. It’s truly difficult to explain, but one person said to me, following a coaching conversation: ‘It’s great to feel like you’re not boring someone to death!’ As I was reminded by in Occupy London general assemblies in 2011, we are so used to feeling unseen and unheard – when we have a chance to feel truly listened to, it can be a deeply liberating experience. And this kind of experience, when realised, can open our abilities to organise together.

In just a few evenings, I felt forced to re-evaluate countless aspects of my ways of engaging with others. I learned and practiced several simple techniques to undermine the role of my ego in any interaction, help others express themselves more fully and explore the deeper motivations and insecurities (in myself and others) that might be impeding progress on a particular project or activity.

The Bedrock of Social Change

To me, these tools are nothing-less-than the foundations of a better future. They enable us to hear each other and to be heard, which are the aims at the core of most systems of direct and participatory democracy. And without processes that offer us the voice and involvement in our own lives (that most current systems of governance and organisation deny us), we are doomed to recreate what we’ve already got.

So this stuff is critical. And it’s hard. But it is not ‘self-indulgent,’ ‘trivial,’ ‘a distraction’ or any of the other pejoratives I’ve heard used to describe this kind of work.

The truth is, it can be scary. It can expose us to parts of ourselves we don’t like admit exist. But it can also help us heal the wounds that keep us from supporting one another in the ways we all need when we’re experiencing the struggles associated with trying to build a new world in the shell of the old one.

I can’t stress enough how much I think Jonathan’s work is needed. His conferences are often more expensive than many of us in the social movement/NGO space can afford, but he runs his evening classes on a ‘gift economy’ basis, meaning he will accept whatever forms of monetary or non-monetary gratitude you choose to offer, based on the value you have received, when the course is finished.

The greatest visions, strongest strategies and most robust organising structures can be brought to their knees by misunderstandings, hurt feelings and generally crap listening. Let’s give ourselves half-a-chance to make these ideas and systems work, by giving ourselves the tools to communicate better!

Here’s where you can find out more about Jonathan’s work:

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