Spaces for Listening
By Charlie Jones & Brigid Russell
So many of our workplace conversations feel constrained, and somewhat superficial. The result is that many of us are frustrated that we are not covering the issues which really matter; and, we are left feeling unheard, and unsupported. We tend to blame a lack of time, or problems with culture or style of leadership.
What if we were to choose to gather together in a space and share with each other how we are really feeling about our experiences, what we are thinking about, and feel listened to and heard?
In a previous blog we promoted the notion that we all have an equal and shared responsibility for creating psychological safety, with and for each other. When we create space in which we genuinely listen to each other, we open up the possibilities for connection, and trust. We enable ourselves to hear our vulnerabilities and what feels important, both to ourselves and others; we get to experience both our commonality, and our differences. It all starts with the quality of our listening, and our appreciation for each other. This experience enables us to go on and have conversations elsewhere which are more real, purposeful, and meaningful; and better conversations lead to more effective relational working.
Our experiences throughout Covid-19 have not created the need to listen to one another and feel heard; that is a long-standing need that is poorly met for many of us, certainly in our work lives. Undoubtedly though, the collective experience of recent times during the pandemic has shone a light on how important it is for us all to have places where we can say out loud what we are thinking and feeling, be listened to without interruption, and also hear where other people are coming from.
Over the past six months we have experimented with #SpacesForListening, a simple, lightly-structured process which creates a space in which we each have an equal opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings. It is about starting where we are, and sharing what is going on for each of us. We do not introduce ourselves by our job titles; we all participate as people. Our experience is that it is possible to create a sense of psychological safety within a virtual space of peers coming together to listen and bear witness to each other.
The structure of three rounds of timed contributions (2 minutes per person, in each round) provides a safe space in which we can each choose to open up and explore our ideas and feelings. Each space for listening comprises a group of eight people, meeting together over Zoom, for about 50 minutes in total. When the eighth person has spoken in Round 3, that is the end of the session.
Each one of us takes a turn in pre-set order; and, in so doing, we each experience a level of listening, an equal chance to share, and a spirit of appreciation. We feel seen and heard. In turn, we each respond to the following prompts:
Round 1: How are you, and what’s on your mind?
Round 2: Any reflections or feelings in the light of Round 1?
Round 3: Anything to take away, and anything that has resonated, which you have appreciated?
It is fundamental that participation in a space for listening is a voluntary choice. Spaces for listening are unedited, and confidential. We share a written outline of the approach with each participant prior to the session. In that outline, we highlight that the space might enable thoughts and feelings to be expressed in ways that can feel moving, or even a little unsettling, and that we all need to be mindful of our own wellbeing. We remind people that any of us can say as much or as little as we like in our allotted 2 minutes, and anybody is free to ‘pass’ when it is their turn.
This is a space of peers, a facilitated session in which the facilitator is an equal participant, rather than an expert leading the session. All those participating have chosen to trust the process enough; and, to be ‘brave enough to join, brave enough to share’ (in the words of one participant).
We have been hosting a few spaces for listening per week over the past six months, each as a one-off experience with a mixed gathering of six people plus the two of us.[i] We have approached people directly to participate, via connections on Twitter. We may be preaching to the converted, in that these are people who we feel are sympathetic to relational working. But our intention is to build a momentum, with each space for listening generating more interest, and more powerful experiences. Our hope is that each individual participant, having experienced a space for listening, may bring the approach into their ways of working with groups of people in their local context.
We believe that the best way to understand the quality and potential of this approach is to experience it. No special training is required to facilitate. The simplicity of the approach means that the facilitation role can be picked up by anyone within a team, or group, interested in setting up a space for listening, so long as they stick to the core principles of the approach.
A number of the participants have voluntarily chosen to provide feedback on the experience via Twitter using the hashtag #SpacesForListening. An analysis[ii] of 138 tweets between May and October 2020 has identified three key themes:
An appreciation for being listened to, and heard, and the power of listening.
Many people mentioned that in our work conversations, we often feel the need to act, or respond in some ‘helpful’ way. In contrast, the experience in #SpacesForListening is that listening and feeling heard is impactful enough. It is refreshing to be involved in a conversation that does not need to lead to actions, in which there is no pressure to take responsibility or to offer others a ‘fix’. The benefit seems to be purely in being listened to, and hearing ourselves think out loud, in reaching our own insights and finding our own way.
An appreciation for a sense of real connection.
The opportunity in each space for listening is to make a meaningful connection within a short space of time. Many have been positively surprised at how quickly a feeling of trust and safety is established within a group of relative ‘strangers’. It has led many of us to question why this quality of attention and generosity does not seem to exist for so many in our teams and regular work groups. Some participants have gone on to set up spaces for listening within their own team or organisation. Early feedback is that it is equally possible to create a sense of safety, and appreciative connection, within a space comprising colleagues who know and work with each other.
An appreciation of the opportunity to pause and have space in the middle of a busy day.
The ‘cult of busy-ness’ is so predominant. People have commented on their appreciation of the ‘permission’ that a space for listening seems to give us to take the time out for reflection, and just to be. Looking across the informal feedback in the tweets, people seem to find that the spaces feel human, safe, equal, compassionate, real, and honest.
The spirit of #SpacesForListening has been to get on with it, keep it simple, and create a place which feels welcoming for people to come together. It has felt meaningful and bold. The focus has been listening, and connection (rather than ‘wellbeing’ or ‘resilience’). However, we have genuinely felt the benefit in our capacity to cope with the demands of the past eight months, as well as to make more sense of our purpose and motivation. We are also struck by the affirming feedback from participants around the power of connection.
We believe that spaces for listening can contribute to creating the conditions for better conversations in our teams, throughout our organisations, and across society. If we are going to find the most sustainable and humane ways to move forward from the Covid-19 crisis, then we surely need more meaningful connections and a better quality of listening.
See more about spaces for listening in participants’ own words by searching the hashtag #SpacesForListening on Twitter. You can find us on Twitter @charlie_psych and @brigidrussell51. We are keen to share more about the experiences of spaces for listening in collaboration with the people who are putting it into practice in their own context.
[i] Between 19th May and 29th October 2020 we have held 58 spaces for listening with a total of 319 participants. Of the 319 participants, 243 were women and 76 men. Accounting for 21 repeat attendances, a total of 298 people have participated in at least one space for listening during this time. These figures do not include the spaces for listening which have been organised locally by people who have participated in one of the spaces for listening we have facilitated.
[ii] We would like to acknowledge and express gratitude to Makita Werrett for undertaking a thematic analysis of 138 Tweets containing the #SpacesForListening which were posted between 29th May and 16th October 2020.