In the last fortnight I have had the good fortune to listen to some truly fascinating debates. I have not been on the panel, or been asked to speak at any of them, simple to go along and listen.
Forster and United For All Ages ran a series called Generations Talking Together, a set of four round table debates stimulating discussion on intergenerational tension at The Times. The panel ranged from academics from Cambridge University, to the CEO’s of charities including MIND and Brook, as well as senior staff from Barratt Homes, John Lewis Partnership and Nuffield Health. All with their own take on intergenerational tension and the issues facing people of all ages.
Last Thursday I went along to Charities Leaders Exchange event discussing stereotypes and charities. The speakers were asked what the stereotypes of their specific charities were, as well as the sector as a whole, what impact these perceptions had and how they tackled pervasive stereotypes. They all approached the questions from a different perspectives, but offered some interesting nuggets of insight, particularly on what it is to work for an unsexy and unpopular cause.
Then over the weekend I helped out with a really inspiring event, Silver Action at Tate Modern, masterminded by US artist Suzanne Lacy. We were helping to co-ordinate social media efforts. A select group of around 20 women from a variety of backgrounds dedicated their day to witnessing the stories a group of 400 older female activists had to tell, reinterpreting them and spreading the word via social media.
They were specifically asked not to engage with the women, who were gathered at the tables discussing the issues that matter to them. This isn’t as easy, as it might sound. Can you sit silent and just listen for an hour or more at the best of times, let alone when the four people sat around the table with you are discussing disturbing, inspiring, surprising, heart warming or harrowing stories? Irrespective of whether those tweeting agreed, disagreed, or indeed wanted to hug the participants, they all contained their thoughts and feelings inside and simply bear witness to it all.
These may seem like disparate events, but they have all reinforced one thing for me, the value of listening. ‘Yer yer we know’ you might be thinking. I listen to people every day – when I’m chatting to them at home, at work and in the pub.
But do you really truly listen to them without butting in with your point of view? Or even when you let them talk, how often do you realise your active brain is busy racing onto the next witty comment you’re going to make, or counter argument to win the battle? Or even find you’ve just wondered off into a different part of your mind completely?
Ernesto Sirolli expresses it perfectly in his TED talk Shut Up and Listen. We must learn to stop assuming we know best and create environments for these important discussions to take place. A different setting and approach may be needed for aid workers like Sirolli, than social or political discussions like Silver Action and Generations Talking Together. But ultimately those who create these spaces and can give these discussions the respect they deserve by investing their time and energy into completely listening will benefit enormously.
As the old Epictetus quote goes ‘we have two ears and one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak’ – I couldn’t have put it better myself.