To listen, to hearken

To listen, to hearken

Listening is a passive word. It is a verb that describes what good school children do in class; what people did in Victorian drawing rooms. It is nice, dutiful, tame.

 

Hearken is a more dramatic word, it hints at more a more urgent form of listening or hearing.

 

Hearken travelled to us via old and middle English. It is related to hark, which has a similar provenance and was, among other things, an early noun for “a hunter’s shout to hounds, as to encourage them in following the scent.”

dog

Hearken also means to listen, but with urgency and focus. It was a word that called to people to draw around a fire that kept them warm from snow and safe from wolves and called them to listen to sagas about bloodcurdling monsters and epic tales. People hearkened to life saving advice, shouted warnings and imperative commands. This word was born of circumstances, I like to think, that demanded that you damn well listen with every fibre of your being. If you didn’t you could miss out on something vital, something that helped you sustain body or heart or soul.

 

Because it is a silent activity we are in the habit, nowadays, of thinking of listening as a meek and subservient thing to do. It is the speaker who is seen as being dynamic and ‘holding the floor’ – that a speaker holds a floor and speaks words that claim our attention speaks of a form of possession, even if momentary. When we talk about this we are describing someone who is momentarily holding a place of psychological ascendancy within our conversation. Is this why so many people are such poor listeners – are they desperate to claim ascendancy, impatient to be gabby, to fill the silence with something, anything?

 

Listening is not passive. I learnt this during a former professional incarnation when I was a dancer and actor. There is nothing passive at all about really watching or listening – really tuning in – to someone else’s flow of ideas. I understood this when I was a performer, physically active in front of crowds of people who were verbally silent but, as a result of their intense attention to me, oh so present and influential participants in the performance.

 

Good listeners confer power on the speaker or performer; this is not something to be claimed by the speaker but rather elicited, bargained for with quality content and respect for the listener.

 

Listening – momentarily suspending your disbelief and really tuning in – is an adventure. Good listening involves risk because you open yourself up to challenging ideas, surprising news, and maybe dark stories.

 

As a performer in the past, and as a trainer and conversation facilitator now, I am interested in those moments when people stop listening and start to hearken – to take in knowledge or ideas with a sort of hunger, or to comfort another with their human focus when that other shares their story.

 

When we come together – professionally or socially – and as we trade, minute by minute, our roles of speaker and listener we need to handle our communication with care; we need to allow each other the chance to hearken – to listen as an act of drawing close and warming our hands by the fire.

cowboys-campfire

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To seem the stranger lies my lot – Part 2

To seem the stranger lies my lot – Part 2

This is the second part of my blog ‘To seem a stranger lies my lot’. You can find the first half of the blog here. There are quotes from one of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ sonnets in this blog, the whole text of which can be found below.

Not being heard, finding one’s self on the outer of a dialogue or group, can lead to feelings of isolation or abandonment. Sometimes we make a deliberate choice to be a quiet or less-verbally active participant of a discussion. But when someone has some ideas or observations to share, and they are denied the chance to share them or these things are ignored or derided when they do, then that can make that someone feel estranged and cast off. Doing this often in a relationship can be toxic, both for the relationship itself and for the confidence of the person being blocked.

 

And this can be the case in any kind of relationship – between lovers, family members, friends, or at work. It can happen, too, between institutions and constituents or between businesses and their customers. When people feel they have a stake in what’s going on in some arena of their lives, and when they then invest the time and energy and goodwill to speak up, they can be enraged or disheartened if they are ignored. If these feelings become further compounded, people are inspired towards acts that speak of bitterness, diminishing loyalty, or even subversiveness.

 

source: Wikipedia commons
source: Wikipedia commons

“… dark heaven’s baffling ban…”*

To quote Gerard Manly Hopkins “Only what word / Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban / Bars or hell’s spell thwarts.” To feel that the words that express our experiences or potential are banned, barred or thwarted is incredibly disempowering. The victim of bullying in the workplace who feels that they have no one to support or even believe them, Muslims who see themselves described as terrorists by bigots, minorities who struggle to get job interviews, women who hit the glass ceiling despite the excellence of their work, anyone who feels that no matter what they do or what they say they will not be noticed or will be wilfully misunderstood – all these people will feel that estrangement.

 

“Only what word Wisest my heart breeds”.

By not being good listeners, either as individuals or as institutions, we also deny ourselves the opportunity of connecting with someone else’s thoughts. We deny ourselves the chance to hear and be moved by insights, perhaps even words of wisdom that have been bred in the heart of someone else’s imagination, intellect, emotions or spirit.

 

It behoves us as individuals to learn to be good listeners, to understand that this is not the same as just not making noise while someone else is speaking. We need to develop the concentration to tune into others’ words, to read body language and all the other ‘tells’ that provide context or nuance to words that are being spoken, and also to actively listen and respond in such a way that the speaker knows they have been heard. This is as important for friendships as it is for Manager–Employee or Business-Customer relationships.

 

So too do organisations and governments need to learn to be good listeners. ‘Community’ ‘consultation’ should not just be a pair of weasel words; the establishment needs to be prepared to be surprised and challenged by what they hear, and not just to fashion consultation processes that will elicit the responses they want to hear.

 

On both a micro and macro level it is only by undertaking to really listen that we can build trust and enjoy a true exchange of ideas and communion of will and values.

 

*The sonnets that Hopkins wrote that are designated by scholars as his ‘Terrible Sonnets’ are not called this because the writing is bad. The writing is devastatingly great. Rather, the sonnets describe a dark night of the soul and are heartbreaking to read.

Sonnet No. 44 by Gerard Manly Hopkins

TO seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
  England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife         5
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.
  I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can         10
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

 

Consultation needs to be genuine

Consultation needs to be genuine

or…

The power of listening

 During my work history I have heard the term ‘community consultation’ bandied about freely. The meaning of the term should be pretty obvious, and it doesn’t take much cogitating to understand why it is so vital a component for success when planning a policy, strategy or project. If you are wanting to reach or empower a certain community of people and engage their support and/or develop their capacity in some area, you need to really understand them first. You need to do this by talking to them, and developing a variety of means and forums in which to do this that allow this community to speak honestly and without fear or anxiety. You need to be absolutely open minded about what the community has to say, even if they are proving your assumptions wrong or saying things you are uncomfortable hearing.

Listen and truly connect
Listen and truly connect

However, I have seen instances where the community consultation strategies that have been mapped out in funding applications or strategic plans have been carried out in a way that is tokenistic, unthinking or even manipulative. The word ‘consultation’ carries with it connotations of thorough communication and having deep conversations. But I have seen people in charge of running projects who have talked up their ‘community consultation strategies’ in front of their reference groups or Boards and then, in practice, just have a few superficial conversations with some cherry picked community members, fishing for vague statements that suited their own personal agenda. Sometimes I feel as if the words ‘community consultation’ have become weasel words – words that no longer carry any real meaning, words that have been appropriated by managerial or bureaucratic types to mean anything they say they mean.

By carrying out community consultation in a rushed or insincere way, talking at (rather than to) a few bewildered community representatives, these workers or managers rob the community they are supposed to be empowering of the opportunity to be really involved with projects that should engage them. Not being listened to, in the first instance, is extraordinarily disempowering; to then have your presence at some half-baked conversation be appropriated to endorse the planning of a project that has no appeal for you or your community, and to then have that project promoted to you and your community as an opportunity for your development, just adds more layers of insult to deeper layers of injury.

Remember when you’re designing for social change – you’re not necessarily designing for people like you! – Chris Vanstone

What is behind this trend of shallow or insincere attempts at consultation? I am sure that I have seen a couple of people deliberately manipulate the community consultation process so that it gave them answers that furthered their own selfish agendas, but I think the majority of people who stuff it up don’t even know that they are doing it. I think it has to do with the fact that, as a society, much of our history of leadership and organising groups of people has been done in hierarchies, with information and decision making flowing from the top to the bottom. Even well-meaning people can be guilty of riding to the rescue of other folks in such a way that they undercut their own good intentions. Flushed with the confidence of knowing they intend altruism, they can rush in to inflict ‘solutions’ on the beleaguered that arise out of their own assumptions as to what is needed. The problem with this is that these assumptions can be based on a lack of deep understanding, and a feeling of pity rather than empathy. Thus power can continue to be hoarded by the empowered, and denied to the disempowered, and all because of a lack of will to really make the time to talk and listen. Those in authority or vested with societal privilege have got to stop seeing themselves as above or separate from unfortunate or inferior others. Regardless of the sector, the success of group undertakings relies on a flow of knowledge and empowering activity.

Empowering groups: getting a delicate balance of power just right
Empowering groups: getting a delicate balance of power just right

When designing for social change, you must step outside of your own concerns and be prepared to lay aside your own assumptions. Only by adapting your communication methods and really listening to others can you be assured of successful consultation.

I will talk about the importance of community consultation, along with other things central to starting up a project or organisation with social outcomes, as part of my workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – on Friday 24 October 2014.

changemakers-logo-black-medium

Communication in the workplace: knowing, seeing and being heard

Communication in the workplace: knowing, seeing and being heard

“It’s great that people who know the site really well and look at it every day were able to spot these parch marks and recognise them for what they were.”

I read a lovely article online in The Guardian this morning about Stonehenge. Apparently a question that has bothered archaeologists for years is whether or not Stonehenge was built as a complete circle of stones by its original builders, or whether they left it as an incomplete circle as it is today. The article told how this question has now been answered as some new evidence has come to light and academics are now pretty sure that it was built as a circle.

The evidence was uncovered accidentally, and its discoverer was not an archaeologist but a Custodian who was working to maintain the grounds:

“When a hosepipe used to keep the grass green in hot spells failed to reach a broken part of the circle, unsightly brown patches began to appear. Custodian Tim Daw was fretting over the blemishes when he realised they matched the spots where stones would probably have stood if the monument had been a complete circle. Daw said it was a “lightbulb moment”… The professionals duly took charge. Aerial photographs were hurriedly commissioned… and the scorch marks on the western side of the Wiltshire site were mapped, and some of the brown patches indeed tallied with where stones would have stood if the circle were complete.”

I was thrilled to read this and I asked myself why. I find ancient history pretty interesting so there was always going to be that. But I think I also enjoyed asking myself which was nicer: that someone who was not an archaeologist was nevertheless perceptive enough, and knowledgeable and in tune enough with the site he worked on*, to pick up on such an important observation; or that his observations were passed so readily onto colleagues and then archaeologists who took his word that he had seen something that needed further investigation. The sharing of knowledge and perceptions lead to some very useful archaeological activity that yielded important new conclusions about this precious historic site.

stonehenge_stukley

Many people probably know of the (I think apocryphal) story of John F Kennedy visiting NASA for a guided tour. The president bailed up an employee who turned out to be a cleaner and asked him what he did there. Instead of saying “I clean”, he said something along the lines of “I’m helping to put a man on the moon”.

The cynic in me wonders if this wasn’t concocted as a cosy bit of business folk mythology to impress upon companies the necessity of having a good Vision and Mission statement that can be disseminated amongst the rank and file. But true or not, I do actually like the story. And I thought of it when I read the article about the Custodian at Stonehenge. That man’s actual duties might lie in the fields of gardening or maintenance, but he knew and cared enough about the place where he worked to be aware that the question of Stonehenge being a complete circle or not was a red hot one. He wasn’t just trudging about the joint like a mindless drone, oblivious to and uninspired by his surrounds. Furthermore, when he made his discovery there was someone else he could tell who “saw them and realised their possible significance as well” and ensured the message was passed along the line until it came to people who had the purview to actually investigate. So not only did these men know, observe and see, they were then heard.

I know diddlysquat about the workplace culture or structure of whatever organisation it is that maintains Stonehenge. For all I truly know it might be a vile place to work either as an employee or volunteer. But, having read this article, I like to think not. I like to imagine a work culture that allows everyone to buy into a pool of knowledge so that lateral thoughts and observations arising from ‘happy accidents’ can happen. I like to imagine a workplace culture where observations can be shared, heard and acted upon if need be. A workplace where a direct line of intelligent observation and focused action can be drawn between someone laying a hosepipe to someone taking aerial photographs for archaeological study suggests, at least, some good knowledge management and communication principles at play. This augurs well for future happy accidents to be capitalised upon, and for other “secrets” and ideas to emerge.

*I am not clear as to whether or not the role of Custodian is a volunteer one or a paid position.