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Employment Today Magazine

The power of listening

We take listening for granted, but it’s far more complex than we once thought, says Emily Beausoleil. She shares some surprising insights from her research.

I’m a democratic scholar, and the core question at the heart of all of my work is how we communicate in diverse societies, particularly in unequal conditions. This started with a focus on how theatre and dance can be a powerful form of voice for marginalised communities. But voice doesn’t exist without listening, and I began to be curious about why, for all the attention to having a say, speaking truth to power, and including marginalised voices, there was very little attention to who should be listening to all these voices, who isn’t listening, and how they might be encouraged to hear the call.

Typically, we take listening for granted as if it’s the unremarkable and inevitable consequence of speaking. Our approaches to being heard gravitate around how to be louder, more forceful, more convincing. But two things have made me sceptical of this approach.

The first is what my initial work on listening revealed about how, far from the passive concession we think it to be, it plays an active and critical role in shaping whether and how people encounter one another. Listening affects whether and how another party expresses themselves—but far more intriguing is how much it also affects how open and receptive others are.

The second is the evidence we now have that shows that listening is far more complex and difficult than we once thought:

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    Most of our thinking occurs beneath the level of conscious thought;
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    Past memory and prior belief filter and can even radically distort what we hear to fit those beliefs;
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    Environmental factors as subtle as the smell or tidiness of a room, the temperature of the drink in our hands, or whether we’ve just eaten affect how we judge and act towards others;
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    Even indisputable evidence that we’re wrong can provoke physiological responses that make us double down on our beliefs; and
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    Having a position of power makes it harder to listen well, because it tends to make people overestimate their own knowledge and powers of observation, underestimate that of others, and have greater difficulty with perspective-taking, seeing our limits, biases and errors, or learning from mistakes.

Clearly, listening is a complicated business, and there are some real challenges in its way.

Therapy creates environments safe enough for the expression of and reflection on sensitive experiences; education facilitates critical integration of new information and worldviews; performance garners and holds audience attention even as it invites us to question ourselves and see the world anew; and conflict mediation can shift interpersonal impasse.

What might we learn from these four practical sectors that foster listening to what is most challenging to hear?

Working with 25+ practitioners across these sectors, the biggest discoveries about listening have been those that ran utterly counter to conventional methods of engagement that typically value speed, efficiency, directness, and clarity—in short, modes that emphasise voice and take listening for granted. For that reason these big lessons may even sound counterintuitive. But if you want to create conditions for listening, whether your own or others, particularly in more difficult or challenging situations, these consistently appeared across fields that ranged from restorative justice and Imago therapy to Treaty education and stand-up comedy and theatre.


First, while our instincts and conventions tell us to be as direct and clear as possible, again and again practitioners showed how sometimes the most direct route is oblique. If we want to persuade others or encourage learning and transformation, it’s not by the compelling argument or evidence, but by using aesthetic, humourous, or experiential strategies that work on us indirectly or surprise us into seeing things differently.

Likewise, if we want to bring out more contentious or vulnerable perspectives and experience, we make them easier to say and hear through fiction, images, or metaphors.

This is key to Barbarian Productions’ music theatre project Sing It To My Face, which enables four generations to voice commonly held and rarely voiced views about other generations because they are reciting a script written from national survey responses. These views are easier to hear because they’re sung. But more subtle strategies include preparing examples of common but hard-to-say or hear views for people to respond to, rather than asking them to give their own views or argue with others directly; or having people choose a natural object from outside to describe something of themselves by way of introductions; or having people draw or select and describe juxtaposing images of their workplace when healthy or dysfunctional.


The second counterintuitive insight was the importance, again and again, placed on developing and valuing relationships. Particularly in Pākehā modes of working together, we come in with a sense of outcomes we seek and the five steps to get there, and then get people together to achieve those ends. This might work for straightforward or short-term tasks, but even in the name of efficiency or effectiveness of ultimate outcome, practitioners recommended centring everything on relationships.

When you develop relationships—between you and the group, and group members with one another—this was said to ultimately elevate the capacity of the whole group to problem-solve and be resilient in the face of difficulty.

It was also found to be the way to achieve meaningful, lasting transformation. Again, not by direct argument or good evidence, but by authentic human connection; not by seeking to change someone, but by accepting, being curious about, and valuing what someone is seeing and feeling at present.

There were many ways people talked about how they built relationships, but a couple that come to mind are tikanga Māori—precise sequences of engagement designed to establish a sense of our relationship to one another and to the context that brings us together—and conducting one-on-one meetings with people, a method at the heart of community organising and very different to review meetings or other typical administrative encounters.

At least two-thirds of these are spent listening, to find out the experiences and struggles each person faces, the aspirations or vision they have about how it could be, and the “cracks” where it seems there’s possibility for something different despite the obstacles. Key, too, is the weaving this does—not simply listening to each person, but listening for the connections to previous one-on-ones, and starting to weave in these connections so people have a sense of how they might be connected to others’ struggles, dreams, and possible activities.


As one psychodramatist put it, “urgency might bring me to the work, but it can’t inform the work.” This may be the hardest to take to heart. But if we’re looking for new ways of working, of thinking, of relating with one another, this takes time—otherwise, we simply fall back on our habitual patterns and well-worn categories.

One of the most concrete examples of this was the recommendation to let people sleep on something and come back to it another day, to deepen engagement and facilitate new thinking. Likewise, to develop the muscles to notice more of what’s happening in a given encounter—the physical and verbal cues that tell us someone’s shut down, or has something to say they’re finding hard to say, or they aren’t feeling comfortable or able to feel out what is needed—we need to slow down.

Practitioners also talked about how they think of approaching difficult issues like deep tissue massage. If you go right at it you get muscle spasms, but if you work your way up to it gently, with patience—in some cases, with really particular stages that can’t be skipped—then you’ll be far more effective at addressing that issue.

And finally, taking time to really ensure others feel heard does wonders to not only discover new ways of interacting or hear new perspectives, but to also help others relax and become more receptive and open.

This takes curbing the habit of “interruptive listening”—using the time someone speaks to prepare our next thought—or even responding with one’s own thoughts, or rushing to problem-solving. Far more effective, ultimately, to group dynamics and ultimate problem-solving is staying with what someone has said—through pauses to let something land, through questions to check understanding or show curiosity or recognition of implicit values in what one has said.

This is but a tiny snapshot of some of the advice practitioners across these fields shared with me, and I’m happy to discuss this further with you. But as these insights so far have to do with when you already are in a given engagement, here are a few ways you might signal to staff that you’re really listening, so that they’re more likely to want to engage.

Involve others early on: Too many processes tack on consultation or feedback after something is well on its way. What would it do to workplace relations if staff were meaningfully engaged as early as issue-identification or agenda-setting? What would it look like to involve staff meaningfully in developing effective responses to those issues?
Go beyond “opinion polls”: Too often we rely on forms of engagement that ask people to express their views as if these are fixed and fully formed. But we know from countless studies that people’s first thought is not their best thought, that our views and desires mature and refine if we’re given opportunities to truly learn about and weigh contending perspectives, and deliberate together. Surveys, referendums, and opinion polls are very blunt instruments for understanding a context and developing solutions. This also, like the first, gives people a sense of agency that is so often lacking in modern workplaces, and leads to low morale and effectiveness.
The lead-up and follow-up matter: Sometimes the more informal features prove vital to what unfolds within a given meeting. Taking time with greetings and including real time to mingle over a shared meal have been shown to have major benefits to how people come together in more formal moments. And finally, if listening is powerful because it shapes whether and how others both express themselves and listen, then cultivating your own ability to be open, curious, and responsive to others can be a transformative and potent thing. Responsive is key here, because even if we seem to be listening in the moment, if this doesn’t translate into some kind of response after the fact—be it as minor as referring back to what someone has said to show it informs one’s thinking or decisions, or making real changes that reflect voiced needs and values, or giving people real decision-making capacities—without concrete signs that people have been heard, no matter what you do the optimism and enthusiasm for engagement will fade into cynicism.

The power of your own listening in opening others is not to be underestimated. And, for all the textbooks on active listening language, it can’t be faked. In fact, all of these design decisions work because they demonstrate an authentic interest in and valuing of others’ voices.

Inviting engagement at early or decision-making stages; enabling authentic opportunities for dialogue where people can express but also consider and deliberate views; taking time for introductions that go beyond box-checking or making opportunities for informal exchange; and demonstrating in your words and actions that you will truly listen—all of this sends signals that work against the work culture of checking out or coasting on autopilot, of cynicism and depersonalisation.

And if relationships are key to a thriving work culture and its capacity to work together and solve problems effectively, then making efforts to establish these conditions for listening might be one of the missing pieces to address and pre-empt major workplace issues.

EMILY BEAUSOLEIL is a senior lecturer at the School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University.

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