Listening to Include

12 June, 2020

Recent events have given the need to hear diverse voices an urgency, focus and currency that feels different – even though the underlying issues, and too many heart-wrenching stories, are far from new.

Great listening creates the environment within which people feel free to speak, find their voice and communicate who they are. Listening is something that we all need to practise, to explore and reflect on if we are to get good at it. Listening to include gives that reflective practice a particular focus and impetus.

Listening to include requires self-awareness, openness and curiosity, the skill to explore differences of perspective and experience, and the ability to listen across – and despite – differences. In short it requires the listener to hold their world lightly so that they can try to understand – or even occupy – the world of another. Learning and performing improvised comedy (‘improv’) has taught me that mind-set is supported by mindful freedom, by lightness, by playing together, by laughing together.

Let me give you an example.

I had the pleasure of leading a session on ‘listening like an improviser’ at the EMCC’s annual conference last week. The conference theme was ‘Empowering Diversity and Inclusion’ and it led me to dwell on what it means to listen to include: to listen so that the voices of diverse individuals and groups get heard.

The virtual conference was a triumph of organisation, community and learning – and the first time in this format. It was quite a challenge for presenters to create connection, a sense of common purpose and ensure that diverse voices were heard, with participants dotted across the globe.

Against that serious backdrop, my approach was light, playful and curious: to show how improvisation games and exercises can help loosen up, work out and hone our listening muscles.

The improv exercises I chose were simple yet stretching in a diverse group. Issues of inclusion are always present. Working in English favours native speakers, even when the task is making up a story one word at a time. Non-verbal games like ‘mirroring’ can be more readily inclusive. But there are no easy answers. The point is to be curious and open about whether people feel included, and then adapt and refine so that how we work and play is more inclusive.

Our curiosity needs to accept the validity of another’s experience. We inquire, challenge even, yet to listen openly, we resist the temptation to validate another’s story or perspective with reference to our own experience. We share our humanity, and that enables us to be empathetic, but we occupy many different worlds.

The spirit of improv helps here: “yes, and ..” means building, not looking to resolve or decide differences, but exploring the inter-play of those differences. Apparently contradictory statements can both / all be true. The world is complex and multi-faceted. If we avoid false polarities, we might be able to find common cause.

The feedback from my session articulates the experience I hoped for: “it challenged my listening, thinking and speaking”, it was “a lovely way to communicate with a new group” and it was “a refreshing conference session! Away from ‘head’ and into ‘body’ … feeling …. knowing. Lovely!”. More pointedly people said that they noticed walls broke down, reduced inhibition, and most wonderfully, they felt they had “permission not to make sense”.

I admit that I hesitated to write this piece. Is it ok to link silly improv to the deadly serious issue of inclusion? But over-riding that concern, I hope these thoughts stimulate some responses, the more diverse the better.

We’re continuing to do weekly, free, online sessions on virtual listening so please join our Introduction to the Listening Dojo.

Picture by Kirill Sharkovski on Unsplash


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