Ssssshhhh listening happening

I’m sure many of us have experienced the situation when we’ve tuned into something new and suddenly the very thing which we now recognize or see or understand starts to turn up in a variety of places. This happened to me very recently when I came across this passage in Dana Spiotta’s new novel: Innocents and Others.

Jelly closed her eyes again and leaned back. She called this body listening. By reclining and closing your eyes, you could respond without tracking your response. You listened. The opposite were the people who started to speak the second someone finished talking or playing or singing. They practically overlapped the person because they were so excited to render their thoughts into speech. They couldn’t wait to get their words into it and make it theirs. …They spent the whole experience formulating their response, because their response is the only thing they value. Jelly had a different purpose in listening… it had something to do with sympathy (p. 47).

The uncanniness of this passage for me is that it encapsulates so many of the issues that I want to discuss: listening, being open to the ‘other’, not formulating a pre-determined response or argument, sympathy or empathy, politics, the privileging of speech over other forms of attentiveness.

The following discussion relies heavily on Andrew Dobson’s book: Listening for Democracy: Recognition, Representation, Reconciliation. For scholars like Dobson, listening is critical for improving the current state of politics and our democratic processes. Such attention to listening might seem a big call given that the most pressing issue for those who have campaigned to improve democratic legitimacy and politics has been to expand the range and type of voices: after all, the capacity of speech has been the defining feature of what it is to be a political being, all the way back to Aristotle. Yet if we are going to make progress in dealing with the current state of democracy, Dobson and others argue that listening will need to be a critical feature of any enhanced democratic politics. Speech is critical to a healthy democracy but an over emphasis on voice/speech has ‘crowded’ out other aspects of communication, such as listening, to the detriment of democracy.

What is it about listening that would improve our political processes and increase democratic legitimacy? I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the current state of our politics is under pressure for its perceived failure to deliver the kinds of economic, social, political and even cultural security that we think necessary for people to live productive and functioning lives. A common complaint is that governments just don’t listen, that they have become detached and are more interested in meeting the demands of market actors or corporations or banks. At times governments respond to criticisms that they don’t listen by engaging in exercises they call listening, e.g. Tony Blair’s government ‘Big Conversation’ (2003). The history of these initiatives has sadly, all too often failed to live up to expectations, which has only added to the criticism that our representatives aren’t willing to listen to our demands and needs which only leads to increasing levels of cynicism and distrust.

If we have become more distrustful of politicians we have also become less willing to listen to our fellow citizens whom we disagree with. Andrew Dobson says, quoting Russell Hardin, ‘the centrally most difficult problem of democratic theory and government (is) how to handle deep disagreements’. Improved listening processes and procedures, he argues, could help bridge some of these deep disagreements

The kind of good listening I am pointing to here includes, but goes beyond what constitutes good conversational listening, such as being fully present, actively engaged, non-judgmental, appreciating the speaker’s perceptions, experiences and messages and involves empathy and understanding someone’s lived experience. The word dialogue better captures the more structured and determined form of conversation which characterises a form of political conversation.

In his analysis Dobson draws out what he sees as the difference between conversation and dialogue by noting that although ‘conversation and chat might be an important prelude to dialogue … as they engender trust and assurance’, they are not the same. Whereas conversation frequently follows established rules of the game, and those rules reflect power relations, dialogue turns on when disagreement arises between participants in a conversation involving different points of view and rules begin to apply. One key rule is that the participants in the dialogue listen to one another and another is to ensure the conditions are created to ensure listening is an obligation rather than an optional extra.

Dobson points to five ways that listening can enhance democracy: increasing legitimacy and levels of trust, dealing with disagreements, improving representativeness and deliberation. In the remainder of this post, I’ll briefly spell out how increased attention to listening could improve each of these features.

Democratic legitimacy

It is in no democratic government’s interest to be seen to be imposing policies on its citizens without their views of citizens having been listened to. Responding to the wishes of the people is the sin qua non of democracy and therefore listening is an essential component of democratic legitimacy.

Increasing levels of trust

Here listening can play the role not only of enhanced attention to what is being said by politicians, governments and other powerful actors, listening can enhance trust. Trust is to be negotiated rather than assumed, through understanding: what above I have described as dialogue.

Dealing with deep disagreements

As the political scientist, Susan Bickford has noted ‘political listening’ is a means of connecting parties in conflict with one another, ‘it makes politics possible as well as being what democratic politics requires’. One area where listening has played a crucial role in structuring the conditions for listening is truth and reconciliation committees. It is well known that listening plays a crucial role in such committees; without careful listening, they wouldn’t work.

Listening and representation

Careful listening can expand the range of those who have typically fallen outside those considered to be legitimate political actors. Such an enlarged representation can be achieved by suspending the pre-existing categories we apply to other voices and suspending our beliefs to make room for the voices of others.

Improving Deliberation

Deliberation is typically taken to mean the use of reason, as opposed to coercion or rhetoric to reach consensus or agreement. A deliberative process encourages the ‘unforced force of the better argument’ to emerge to find solutions to disagreement and conflict. Like other forms of democratic process, it tends to emphasise speech over listening. Deliberation could be improved by paying more attention to the requirements for careful listening.

Finally, listening, in the way I have described it here, could help us move beyond speech as the main criteria for assessing those worthy of recognition to a situation where the necessity for listening (alongside the other senses) is included in an expanded democratic politics. If this were the case then this might have important and far reaching consequences as to how we recognise (mute) ‘nature’; normally considered outside and not worthy of political recognition (for example the recent granting of legal status of personhood to the Whanganui river). If instead we think of politics as problems rather than acts of will then listening to natural voices may take on a very different colouration. Once ‘things’ attract our attention (become problems) they become a politics, but becoming a politics depends on the ways in which (we choose not to) listen to natural voices.

PEP puts listening at the centre of its approach to public engagement, collaboration and in the design of its products. If you have read this blog and want to find out more about how good listening can improve all aspects of an organisation, please turn to our home page. There is a good summary of how listening can be applied to improving outcomes for managers, employees, stakeholders, and communities. We welcome comments and inquiries from organisations of any size and type as how we can work with them to develop the practical tools necessary to build a learning culture that listens.

This PEPtalk is written by PEP partner, John Pennington.