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.)