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.)