Too much voice, not enough listening

“There is a ‘crisis of listening’ in contemporary societies”

(Jim Macnamara)

This research finding was an inspiration for this website and for PEP’s continued interest in listening, especially as it relates to politics and democracy.

According to Andrew Dobson, democratic politics has been dominated by ‘voice’ over ‘listening’ since the time of Aristotle … but this domination is now so acute that the legitimacy of our governance institutions is seriously undermined.

While those in positions of authority in New Zealand seem willfully blind and deaf to these issues, I see problems caused by too much voice and not enough listening everywhere – in competitive party politics, in political advocacy, in workplaces, in traditional media and especially in social media, etc.

Which brings me to the inspiration for writing this blog –  a shareable example that illustrates the ‘crisis of listening’.

Kimbra White of MosaicLab told me about this ‘listening experiment’ in April 2017. Tony Jones, the host of ABC’s Q and A, decided to close off a discussion about euthanasia by asking the invited advocates to summarise the arguments of their opponents.

Watch for about 3 minutes (42:06 – 45:00)

Here’s my take on the result. Margaret Sommerville, a distinguished academic and bioethicist, makes a fair stab at it, while Nikki Gemmell, a distinguished author, commentator and euthanasia advocate, fails completely – she clearly has not listened to Sommerville or the many other opponents of euthanasia even though she has written a book on the topic and is recognised as a ‘public expert’.

To get a sense of the difference between Gemmell’s ‘listening performance’ and her normally polished delivery of messages, of her ‘voice’, scroll the video back to around 25:30.

To reiterate, my point in drawing attention to this episode is not to make comment about the euthanasia issue or about the individuals involved. Rather it is about the ‘crisis of listening’ – and our toleration for the lack of listening – in this case by an advocate/commentator on a current events show aired on public TV in Australia.

While there are lots of people are working to improve listening – in addition to the academics named above, I’d mention Emily Beausoleil in New Zealand – the  problem is deeply embedded in Western societies and institutions. How many current events shows are structured as a debate between advocates who don’t really listen to each other? How much listening goes on in parliamentary debates? How well do authorities listen when they are consulting their communities? How many managers really listen to their workers? Etc, etc, etc

But without listening, there is:

  • No recognition of, or respect for, the other
  • No consideration of their views
  • No chance of mutual understanding
  • No possibility of an appropriate response let alone of finding lasting solutions.

In short, we can all be given ‘voice’ and we can all shout as much as we like but, without listening, there is just cacophony, noise, polarisation, withdrawal, frustration, etc. While all this voice may feed a ‘spectator politics’ and have some entertainment value as, say, political theatre, we have too many serious issues not to start addressing the under-recognised ‘crisis of listening’.

This PEPtalk was written by Simon Wright, a Partner at Public Engagement Projects, a Wellington-based consultancy with interests in listening, democracy and face-to-face and digital public engagement.