Monday, 4 November 2013

sounds of pain

My first podcast on the subject of tinnitus is out. 

It's called Sounds of Pain

And it's a conversation (of course) between me and Isobel Anderson.You can get it here on iTunes. Or if you're not an iTunes person, you can download it directly here.

Isobel is a singer, a songwriter and a sound artist. A seriously talented young woman with the voice of an angel, a mind that's as curious as it is creative and a sense of self that's both fragile and robust. Her songs are delicate and sure-footed, powerful and vulnerable, funny and wicked. Her wit oozes gently into her lyrics while her voice captures you. She lays bare her soul but somehow manages to hold you with a firm grip all at the same time.

She's about as talented a singer song-writer as I've heard. But she's not in the least bit interested in becoming a star.

So what's the nature of my interest in her story?

Well, a couple of years ago, out of nowhere, Isobel developed tinnitus. It all happened horribly easily. She had some wax in her ear. She got an ear infection. The infection damaged her ear. And whatever the precise medical explanations and definitions, the bottom line is that the nerves that send signals to her brain quickly seized the opportunity to create a kind of chaos between her ear and her mind.

As she puts it:

It felt like I was being tortured.

I couldn't sleep.

I completely lost it.

I was just /

My whole world turned upside down.

It /

I had never ever imagined suffering like that. Ever.

I just had no idea that /

That could happen.

I always thought that that kind of suffering happens when /

You know /

When you're being tortured.

Her description of what happened and how she's learned to manage her tinnitus and maybe even befriend it is an extraordinary thing to listen to. And it's the first of my encounters with a series of people whose lives have been affected by this strange and very specific condition. My hope with these podcasts is to reveal to those of us who don't have it a little more of what it's like to have tinnitus. To share some stories of struggle and success. And to allow some creative air into a space that seems often to focus mostly on the medical side of things.   

I can think of any number of reasons why I might hope that people will enjoy listening to this particular podcast.

First, it might be you one day.

Secondly, I think anyone who has tinnitus might find some of her perspectives really helpful or at least thought provoking.

And thirdly, anyone who enjoys Isobel's music and her acoustic, part-folk, part-blues musical instincts will find the way she peels back a few of the layers of her life so far utterly compelling.

As I've listened back to our conversation bit by bit, time and time again - as you do when you're editing - I've become more and more fascinated by how useful it can be - when you're trying to describe something as specific and hard to imagine as tinnitus - to describe something else.

(When and if you listen, you'll hear what I'm talking about.)

Now - there's a special feature on this podcast.

Isobel has written a rather beautiful song about her experience of tinnitus called Little Sounds of Pain. You can hear it within the podcast but if you want to put it on your iPod - and you so should - she's released it to coincide with the podcast going out. It's a really beautiful song. And she's donating half of the proceeds to the British Tinnitus Association who are doing really fabulous work in terms of supporting, educating and (hopefully) inspiring tinnitus sufferers all over the country. There's a big week coming up early next year for the BTA. It's Tinnitus Awareness week,  from February 3rd - 9th and you can read all about it here.

So if you make your way over to Isobel's  website you can buy Little Sounds of Pain for as little as £1.00 if you like.

While you're there you'll notice that Isobel has a new album called In My Garden coming out in December. Her back catalogue is a joy to discover. (My bet is that if you listen to the podcast, you'll end up buying most of her music. I know I did.)

Right. That's it for now. 

This podcast has been a pleasure to work on from start to finish. Partly because getting to know to Isobel just a little bit has been an intriguing and uplifting experience. And partly because I've been able to weave into the edit of our conversation so much of her music. And partly because I have a strong sense that I'm only beginning my journey with exploring tinnitus.

So do listen to the podcast if you can. 

It's about 75 minutes long. Perfect for a car journey, a commute or a kitchen.. 

For now, thanks Isobel. Here's to all things auditory.  

(Oh, you might find the language a bit fruity here and there. If you're the sensitive sort.) 

Monday, 30 September 2013

Music To My Ears

It’s been an insanely long time since I put anything on the blog here.

For anyone who’s missed it, I’m sorry.

As the Autumn leaves turn red, delicious new fruit will appear I promise. 

Meanwhile – have a listen to our podcasts here.

Now – there are ideas afoot.

If you are a tinnitus sufferer and have a musical relationship with your tinnitus, do please feel free to get in touch.

What I mean by a musical relationship is this. Do you understand or perceive your particular blend of tinnitus as a note, a pitch or a tone? And can you describe it as such? I’m building a picture of perspectives in preparation for a podcast on this extraordinary and unique condition. 

Already I’m delighted to say that the wonderful young folk talent Isobel Anderson has already agreed to contribute to the show and she’ll be featured along with a few other remarkable guests.

Isobel's voice is a remarkable one. I heard her sing live at a folk club in Twickenham recently and found myself literally struggling to believe what I was hearing.  Her tone has echoes of Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. The turns and weaves of her simple but incredibly affecting original melodies honestly made me gasp out loud. Her songs are at times searingly modern and in the next moment of another time. The gentle wit of her razor sharp observations on men and her relationships with them were beautifully etched. And in just a brief conversation afterwards she began to reveal to me a fascinating perspective on not just tinnitus but pain of different sorts. So - in anticipation of my recorded conversation with her, I wholeheartedly recommend that you have a listen to Isobel's new track "Gentlemen" and all of her other music here.

And please get in touch if you feel you may have something to offer to the new show.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

monkey bars

“You’re lucky” said Tobias, aged 8. “Everyone’s listening to you.”

And yes, Tobias, I am lucky. I’m lucky enough to be listened to. 


But when I sit with Tobias and the other children at Educare Small School in Kingston as I have done on the occasional Monday morning to run what’s become known as Listening Circle, my intention isn’t really to be listened to. It’s to listen. And to listen well.

On those mornings I pay conscious attention to how I listen, just as I would when I’m recording an intimate conversation with someone on the subject of pain or sex or when I’m mediating between opposing groups of people in a hot and dusty tent somewhere or facilitating a conversation with board members of a global business. The situations may change - but the skills remain the same.

And this year I've been asked to apply these skills as part of a project devised by Chris Goode and Company. The project is called Monkey Bars and it opens at the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh Festival next week before touring and coming to the Unicorn Theatre in September.

My role in the project was simply to record conversations with children and then hand them over to Chris for transcribing. I did nothing new or special. I did what I always try to do.  I employed as gracefully as I can the ten core skills of dialogue at the service of as rich a conversation as possible.

So when each child walked into the private space we’d organised, before I got them to press the button marked REC, we’d address an important question together; the question that ought really to be asked before every conversation: Why are we having this conversation?

It’s the question that’s on every child’s lips as they walk into the room and it’s a question that draws to the surface one of the most important ingredients of a dialogue: shared intent. My answer to this question would normally be something like this: “Well – usually a project starts with an idea. And behind this project is an idea that sometimes children aren’t always listened to.”

“Do you find that sometimes?” I’d ask. 

A nod of the head would often follow; sometimes quite a fervent nodding of the head. 

I’d tell them that our conversation would never be ‘heard’ as recorded, but instead it might become source material for a script. “A script for a piece of theatre that puts the words of children into the mouths of adults.”

“What do you think?” I would ask.

“Why are you doing that?” they’d want to know. “Well, because I think Chris suspects that one reason why children’s voices aren’t always heard is that people don’t really take children seriously. And that maybe by hearing what you say through other people standing on a stage - not other children but other adults - maybe people might listen differently to what you have to say.”

“Okay” they often replied, but this time with a slower more thoughtful look on their face. (Any other comments at this stage were usually confined to just one word: “Interesting.”)

I’d then make clear to the children that if they found themselves saying anything on tape that they’d rather not have used then they should say so and that would be fine; we wouldn’t use it. (None of them did.)

Then I’d tell them that the only thing I’d really ask of them was to be as honest as they could be. And in return I would assure them that they weren’t about to be judged or assessed by me or Chris. “This isn’t a test, it’s a conversation.” I’d say.

And so we’d start talking.

And I’d start listening: to, for, from and with.

I’d listen to the content of what they had to say.

I’d listen for the small clues that lie within and behind the content, the tiny hints that might be worth exploring more.

And I’d acknowledge where I was listening from: a position of adult curiosity – as an outsider if you like. (How could I be anything but an outsider? I’m an adult after all.)

And sometimes – and only sometimes – I’d get close to listening with these young people; occasionally finding myself trusted enough to be allowed to sit with them as it were and glimpse through their eyes and ears how the world might seem to be.

It’s this final layer of listening – empathic listening – that I find the most challenging of all, no matter who I’m having a conversation with. Why? Because it’s so tempting to kid myself that I’m already doing it. It’s easy to tell ourselves that “we really understand what it’s like” for someone who’s had an entirely individual experience. It gives us a warm glow to imagine that we can truly share someone else’s point of view; that we can actually sit in their position and feel what something must have been like for them. 

But truly, this is much harder than we think. Empathy-lite is common; genuine empathy is rare. And so the moment I begin to utter the words ‘that must have been amazing’ or ‘scary’ or ‘thrilling’ or ‘upsetting for you’, I know I’m probably in a dangerous place, because I’m probably in the wrong place. I’m painting their picture with my brush, with my palette and my experience of life. And in doing so I’ve hijacked the conversational journey. 

As we all do. 

As we often do.

So, in order to do my best to co-create a healthy conversation, I’ll employ the skills of dialogue, my everyday working tools. I’ll check rather than assume. I’ll dig deeper before I challenge or query. I’ll make sure we’re both okay with where we are and where we’re going. I’ll encourage them to describe their experience using personal and specific examples rather than abstract or broad generalisations. I’ll walk the talk of dialogue as gently and as generously as I can. 

But, as essential as a set of well-defined and sharp tools may be, it’s not enough. And like all the other skills of dialogue, listening well is about a lot more than efficiency and good practice.

Good listening is about attitude; something that’s hard to teach, but simple to explain. 

For me it’s as simple as this: behind every good listener is a desire to hear.

In my experience, if there’s anything that can be trusted to make a real difference to a conversation it’s that: the presence of desire. It’s curiosity that creates the space for a bigger conversation and transforms what could be just an interview into a dialogue.

It’s not always easy to be curious. But when you’re sitting with a 9-year-old, personally it comes naturally. I’m curious about what they think. I’m curious to hear how they’re beginning to construct their perspective on the world. 

And I’m curious to find out whether being listened to is the norm or the exception.

So I’d like to thank the children and their teachers and parents for talking part in this project. 

I’d like to thank them for talking to me and for answering my questions. And I’d like to thank them for being curious enough to sometimes ask me some good questions too. 

(You can hear a short extract of one of the conversations and a question I was asked here.)

As one child said to me at the end of a conversation: “it’s just nice to have someone be interested really.”

(This is a slightly edited version of the piece I wrote for the script of Monkey Bars published by Methuen. You can read an interview with Karl and Chris in The Guardian here.)

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

understanding difference

A few weeks ago I was happily tucked up in bed with Roman Krznaric. I was really enjoying it.

Alright. I wasn't actually in bed with him. But I was in bed with his fantastic book called The Wonder Box. "I wonder who this man is?" I remember thinking.

Then, I had lunch with Steve Moore and Carole Stone. Steve thought Roman and I would make a good double act.

Carole agreed.

And stole Steve's idea.

So last night, I shared a small stage with Roman at the totally eccentric and wonderful Stone Club in London.

Roman spoke first about empathy. (You can watch him talking at he RSA here.)

And then I spoke about listening.

If you weren't there - you missed a lovely evening.

But if you're interested, my talk was called a little like empathy.

You can listen to it here.

Or download it here.

Or read it.


Understanding difference.

"Essentially, it’s what I do for a living. I help people talk to each other. People who are different to each other.

My professional interest in understanding difference (and empathy) took the form of starting something called The Dialogue Project in response to the events of Sept 11th 2001, when against a bright blue September sky we saw two worlds of difference collide in a way that – let’s hope – changed for ever our perspective on why there’s a need to understand people who - in one way or another - aren’t like us.

If I’m honest, it wasn’t 9/11 that prompted me to give up what I was doing and focus instead on helping people talk to each other. It was rather Bill Clinton’s speech in November of that year when he essentially said something like: “If we want strawberries all year round – if we are choosing this global society – then we have to understand: our neighbourhood just got bigger.”

I think what he meant in essence was that the difference that had until recently kept a safe distance, is now among us in a way it wasn’t 25 years ago. And he went on to say that in this world of difference, we will fall into one of two groups:

There’ll be those of us who look at difference and see richness and learning and possibility. And this group of people will move towards difference. We will respect it and inspect it. Explore it and who knows even embrace it.

And then there’ll be those of us who see difference as division. We’ll see difference and perceive danger. We’ll see difference and feel an inherent threat to what’s known and familiar. At best we may simply want to wish it away - at worst we may seek to destroy it.

Of course difference has always existed between peoples and people, countries and cultures. Come to that, tolerance and terror aren’t exactly new ideas either. And so empathy – which starts with understanding difference - has always been necessary. But never so much as today because…

Well because things have changed. Our world has changed. Our world is changing. And when it comes to difference for me the two most significant things changes are these:

Aeroplanes and the internet.

Flights are cheap. And the internet is virtually free.

And so our world (both physical and virtual) has shrunk. The boundaries and borders that used to make us feel safe are disappearing… so difference - global difference - if it’s not sitting next to us in the classroom, on the bus or the tube train, is staring us in the Facebook.

But for many of us – for most of us perhaps – it’s not the global difference that preoccupies us. It’s the difference we deal with on a day-to-day basis - the local difference - that permeates and pervades our everyday lives, that occupies us - for good or ill.

Ask any husband which relationship he’s most concerned about – and it won’t be the one between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. It’ll be his own relationship with his wife, or his son or his boss. Ask the child who’s frightened of going to school which she fears most: a nuclear Iran or her ex-best friend who’s now threatening to post pictures of her on the internet.

Terror (in its different forms) is everywhere. Possibility – in its different forms - is everywhere. Because difference is everywhere.

So if difference is everywhere - and if we’re interested in understanding it – if our desire is to create empathy - then there’s a demand for dialogue.

But the demand is not for the concept of dialogue.

For me, dialogue is action. And conversation is the art of the practical.

And like any craft or art, there are tools of the trade. And in my experience, when it comes to empathy, there’s one tool in particular, that’s the sharpest, most practical tool of all.

And it’s called Listening.

Listening is the subtle knife that carves through matter to what matters. It reveals new worlds and possibilities. Listening can create the as yet unimagined ideas and unconsidered solutions.

And it’s a skill we can all use. But in a world that’s increasingly obsessed and seduced by the visual… I think we need to redefine and rediscover listening. So just for a few minutes, I want you to consider listening as a form of expression. As much as the way we look, in our carefully groomed clothes, as much as the way we sound, as much as the way we smell of our perfumes and aftershaves, the way in which we listen can tell others a great deal about us. About who we are. And how we are.

So let’s reclaim the art of listening from the exclusive grip of the caring professions, some of whom seem to have become a little careless with it.

But let’s be careful ourselves. Because listening’s not a soft skill or an act of cuddly kindness.

Listening’s a sharp blade. And it cuts deep.

So if deep listening, if rich listening is the key to empathy /

How can we do it better?

Allow me to share what I like to think of as the four lenses of listening. And offer you a glimpse of what I’ve learnt in my work touching lightly on some of the experiences I’ve had with people who’ve appreciated and responded to being given a damn good listening to.

The first type of listening we learn is…

#1 Listening to

This is where listening starts. As a child we’re told to listen to.

Listen to Daddy.

Listen to your Mother.

Listen to me.

Listen to the birds.

Listen to the music.

Listen to the sound of me saying AH, EE, OO…

Listen to me.

This is the first stage of listening.

And still, as adults we can learn how to listen to better. And my suggestion if we want to improve the quality of how we listen to - would just be to listen longer.

With a little more patience. With a little more time. With a little less distraction.

And then, there’s:

#2 Listening for

As we grow up and mature, we develop the capacity to listen for. To listen beyond what’s said for how it’s spoken.

“Mum’s talking about her trip to see Grandma but she sounds upset.”

“My girlfriend’s saying she wants to see me next week, but I can tell something’s wrong.”

As we get older, we listen more consciously, with more awareness.

And so when I’m with a group of truanting kids in Walworth - racist, angry, hurt, fiercely defensive thirteen year olds, young people who can’t remember what it’s like to be listened to, young people who’ve realised (maybe only subconsciously) that the only way to get noticed is to do and say outrageous things – if I want to empathise with these young people, it’s not enough to listen to them.

I have to listen for…

I have to listen for clues. I learn to listen for the small things; the things that don’t belong.

The held breath, a disguised tell-tale sign that this is a young woman who does care about her future. The slight catch in the boy’s voice as he discloses that he does want to come to school. If we can (and we can) listen for these clues, these symptoms that this young man at least is a compassionate, considerable and considering teenager who hasn’t yet given up on himself – even if everyone else has. If we can listen for with this young man, then and only then – can we begin to notice what’s hidden, what’s buried, but ultimately what’s there aching to be heard.

#3 Listening from

And then there’s listening from… I learnt to do this in a project called Your Thoughts With Mine, where I worked with Muslim groups around the UK and discovered that in order simply to understand someone whose faith’s not just a set of religious rules or guidelines, but in fact a heartfelt way of life, was to acknowledge that I was sitting in a completely different place to him. And by finding the humility to accept that my school of life was less whole, less integrated, and less rigorous, by accepting… (in fact by seeking out) the distinctive differences between my perspective and his, far from limiting my capacity to listen, I was actually freeing myself to become a deeper, more honest partner in conversation. I became free of political correctness, of caution and constraint. I was listening from my experience and not trying to second guess his. We created air between us. And we began… to breathe.

It became a livelier, more robust and healthy exchange. We minded the gap. We felt the difference. And enjoyed the difference. We laughed more. We learnt more. From different places.

And then, finally - and here we begin to approach empathy - there’s:

#4 Listening with

Have I ever done this? Have I ever actually stood in someone else’s shoes? Have I ever truly occupied their world?


How can I? How can we?

How can I can imagine accurately what it’s like to be Jess who suffers from Tourettes and swears ten times every minute, scaring children in the street and shouting out her own PIN number at the hole in the wall?

And how can I share the experience of Jean-Francois Clervoy the astronaut, who’s rocketed thousands of miles up into space to fix the Hubble telescope and who’s turned around to look at our planet from outer space and wept like a boy at its beauty?

Can I say to the woman I love who’s failed her driving test for the third time in a row, I know how frustrated you feel; I know exactly how you feel?

No! Because I don’t!

So whoever they are - these people who aren’t like us - can we be them?


But can we be with them? Can we sit with them? Can we see with them as they look through their window on the world? Can we lean towards them, can we put our arm around them as they gaze and wonder?

Can we try at least to forget ourselves and if only for a while listen with them?

Yes. Yes. We can try.

And if we try… If we can learn to listen like this - and we can learn to listen like this – perhaps then, we can begin to experience something a little like empathy… and then maybe we can begin to understand something about the extraordinary different individuals we are.

Thank you. For listening."

(My special thinks to those whose huge influence and expertise is in the work I refer to: especially Dick Mullender, Jess Thom, Rehana Mughal, Eleni Simeou, Jean Francois Clervoy, Anthony Venditti, Daniel Snell and Emily Shenton at Arrival Education, Steve Moore and Lucy Windmill.)