How a "politics of listening" could change Britain

The act of listening may seem like a platitude, but it matters.

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Soon after his election as Labour leader in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn announced he would “listen to everyone,” claiming he “firmly believe[d] leadership is about listening.”

But what does it mean “to listen”? Is Corbyn’s aim realistic? And could political listening be done better?

Both of us have trained in “active” or “deep” listening practices. One of us worked for the Samaritans, a listening-based phone service that provides emotional support to callers. The other trained at Plum Village, a Buddhist meditation centre in France that encourages mindful practices in a semi-formal, monastic context. And we both currently participate in a “sandwich run,” a mobile food-and-drink service for individuals sleeping rough.  The run often involves lengthy conversations with individuals sleeping rough, about their experiences, opinions, and backgrounds.  During the run we usually spend more time listening than talking.

Our experiences suggest that better listening – a skill that may sound banal – could in fact be transformative for politics in the UK and elsewhere.

What is Good Listening?

Both active and deep listening emphasise the importance of focusing on what the other person is saying.  This is largely common sense: if you are telling me something important I shouldn’t be distracted by my watch, phone, or thoughts about dinner (this is harder than it sounds).  Our experience tells us that conversations involving active and deep listening elicit more honest, heartfelt responses, and put the speaker at ease.

Good listening is about more than words.  It also involves a keen sensitivity to affect and emotional registers of interaction.  It is about sensing mood, being aware of body language and alert to thoughts and feelings that people might find hard to articulate.  (Because listening is not about effective hearing, it should be clear that good listening can also be practiced by the hearing-impaired.) Good listening avoids judgment, digression, or interruption as far as possible.  It involves carefully fleshing out meaning in the shared space between two communicants, and remaining aware that alternative meanings are possible. Good listening is open-ended.

Finally, good listening involves generosity and good faith.  To listen actively or deeply is to have faith that what the other says is of value, if for no other reason than that listening takes time. To listen is an investment in the other, since every dialogue carries the promise of a new understanding.  Listening well is not a passive activity that ‘says’ nothing.  It is a message to the other that they are worth your full attention. This is why Thich Nhat Hanh often speaks of listening as a “precious gift”.

Listening and Politics

A politics of listening should be concerned with politics in its broadest sense: activities, disputes, and interactions that concern the distribution of power in society.  For the purposes of this article, however, we concentrate on how listening might apply to electoral politics.  We leave for later the question of how improved listening might affect political activism, organising, and other forms of political interaction.

Achieving a “politics of listening” in the realm of electoral politics begins at a personal level – the level of one-to-one human interactions.  Although politicians’ primary role is to represent constituents – which according to any theory of representation involves some listening to the electorate – our (limited) experience with politicians suggests they do not always do this well.  We have talked to politicians who seem distracted, perhaps because they are overworked or feel burdened with constant multitasking.  And we have watched politicians in public meetings answer questions in a self-serving way, showing no real desire to listen.  A first step towards a politics of listening is for politicians to commit to improving their own listening skills.  Would it not be beneficial for politicians to spend some time at a Samaritans training, or Plum Village, or generally focusing on their listening abilities, before taking up public office?

Not only would this training help politicians listen better to constituents and their fellow politicians.  It would also, we hope, lead to the discussion of a broader range of concerns: good listening should sensitise politicians’ ears to a wider spectrum of issues than are currently being discussed in electoral politics, and put them in touch with a richer repository of stories.  If politicians listened with care and imagination to the concerns of their constituents, we like to think that representation would be improved.  We hope there might be more focus on the real stories of ordinary people whose lives are often ignored in run-of-the-mill politics – Corbyn’s PMQs were certainly a positive step in that direction.

Improved listening might also help us shift our image of the skills a politician ought to have, moving away from an obsession with speaking ability and charisma towards a more rounded picture of public representation. Further, we expect that if politicians were to model good listening habits, this might inspire better listening among other activists and advocates engaged in political debate.

Challenges 

A politics of listening has to be more ambitious, and more complex, than a simple recommendation to attend one-off trainings that may or may not enhance everyday interactions.  We must reckon with deeper questions bound up with the relation between listening and politics.

First, how should politicians listen in a political environment where hidden (or not so hidden) agendas are the norm?

There is no doubt that political listening must, at some level, be a discerning activity. Politicians must recognise politically calculated declarations, and distinguish these from honest and heartfelt communications (even if such distinctions will never be clear-cut).  To some extent distinguishing between these two types of communication is a natural outcome of good listening.  A good listener should ‘sense’ that something is awry in a given speech situation and respond accordingly.  They should be able to do this partly through instinct, and partly through a firm understanding of rhetoric and structural concerns.  Once it is understood that something deeper is at play, politicians can respond accordingly.  That said, politicians should – so far as possible – listen in good faith, and avoid dismissing concerns offhand. 

So when free-market lobbyists push for financial deregulation, a good listener will understand the values and agendas lying behind their speech; evaluate whether what this speech is honest or deliberately distortive; and give their requests appropriate weight.  Of course, good political listening is easier said than done.  But we think an effort in that direction would allow politicians to hear clearly the concerns of their constituents, without necessarily compromising on some principled starting points.

Secondly, who should politicians listen to first, when faced with a cacophony of competing voices?

We think there is a good argument that those who have been historically marginalized should be given greater attention by politicians.  This includes members of racial and religious minorities, women and LGBTQ people, the financially dispossessed and people with disabilities.  When one of us worked in South Australia, where indigenous peoples still face significant racism and marginalisation, he talked at length to an Aboriginal Australian sitting on a bench outside the main political offices of the city.  She asked him to pass on stories and messages, and at the end of the conversation thanked him for listening.  Her gratitude was palpably amplified by the fact that she – and other Aboriginal Australians she had known – had suffered a lifetime of dismissal by politicians.  The other of us once spoke at length to a single, working-class mother of two who worried about her financial situation, and the risks she was taking by retraining as a psychologist late in life. During the conversation she began crying, simply because no one had listened to her talk about this before. Over-worked and caught up in (structurally under-appreciated) childcare duties, she had become socially isolated and alienated from political concerns.

These are just examples. But they highlight the power of listening to touch marginalised groups in profoundly human ways, and signal an urgent need to move on from the practices of the past.

A Way Forward

Ultimately we accept that a thoroughgoing politics of listening, even if only applied to electoral politics, requires structural change to political institutions. 

We don’t simply mean the reform of political “surgeries” or “clinics” in the United Kingdom, the language of which suggests that MPs’ main role is to patch up constituent injuries and do short-term political problem-solving.  We don’t simply mean better responses to constituents’ concerns raised by e-mail or other means.  We mean a sea-change in how attentive politicians are to the people that surround them.  We mean a heightened sensitivity on the part of politicians to the problems that might lie behind what is said by a constituent in hurried, nervous exchanges.  We mean much greater generosity and curiosity shown to the concerns of the public, in place of the cynicism and dismissiveness we have seen creep into politicians’ attitudes toward their constituents.

This transformation in how politicians see the people they claim to represent, and how people see politicians, may not be secured through voluntary attitudinal change alone.  We may need more experimentation in tools used by politicians (such as through social media).  We may need institutional change: more time set aside to allow politicians to listen, more encouragement given to the public to speak to politicians, more bodies charged with seeking out public views.  We all need to think more about how to operationalise a politics of listening.  And that might require us all to listen to each other just a little bit more.

A politics of listening will not singlehandedly solve the many problems plaguing the UK political system.  But we believe a politics of listening, coupled with a focus on other political values (such as love), can help us build politics afresh.  If politics is – at least in part – about effective collective conversations, listening might improve those collective conversations.  A politics of listening can bring our vision of good politics more in line with our vision of what good people are: compassionate, understanding beings.  And that is at least a start on the way towards crafting a more meaningful, humane, and decent political community.