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The art of listening is at the heart of democracy

Monday, March 13, 2017
The art of listening is at the heart of democracy

How do you encourage people to listen to views that clash with their own, especially around issues like inequality and poverty that can be easy to ignore and uncomfortable to face?

This is crucial to a strong democracy and yet perhaps the hardest thing we’re asked to do as citizens, says Massey University politics researcher Dr Emily Beausoleil.

Dr Beausoleil’s research investigates “how people come to listen” in regard to socio-economic inequality – a timely topic for election year with poverty and homelessness as persistent themes.

She is working with social policy agencies and “master listeners” from four professional sectors across New Zealand to explore new ways for marginalised voices and views to be heard. Her three-year Marsden-funded project starts at a time when “listening is in scarce supply,” she says.

“New Zealand has the fastest growing gap between the rich and poor of any OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] country,” she says. “Yet that fact – and clear links of high levels of inequality to health issues, criminality, declining social trust, and economic instability – hasn’t been enough to move kiwis to push for meaningful change. When information doesn’t convince us to listen, what else can make the difference?”

Central to her study is the idea that issues of poverty and socio-economic inequality connect us all as part of our collective responsibility as citizens, whether or not we experience or witness their negative effects directly.

The Canadian-born, Wellington-based academic at Massey’s School of People, Environment and Planning, says the idea for her study was sparked by her own sense of wanting to better listen and respond to experiences and claims that are uncomfortable to hear for those in positions of privilege.

Poverty’s causes are complex and hard to communicate

For the first part of her study, she spoke to government and civic organisations at the forefront of public policy, awareness-raising and debate who rely on conventional methods of engagement and information sharing via websites, lobby groups, forums, online campaigns and letter-writing.


“The sheer complexity of it – even for those who care about it – makes it really difficult to understand and to know how we can affect the issue,” she says.

Changing the conversation – do the rich care?

The big challenge for agencies working for change or to inform others is that “they want to speak to specific people they can never quite reach. So they often end up preaching to the converted. A lot of agencies want to reach the wealthy, those who don’t engage normally with these issues.”

However, many wealthy are insulated, she says. “They exist in worlds that are largely self-affirming. You feel like it’s the world everyone else lives in and you’re not aware how cocooned you are.”

“A lot of people who work online say you can’t actually change someone’s mind online. Social media, blogs, twitter. You can have a sound bite – but one that shakes and stays with us is hard to achieve.”

Inequality implicates all of us, she says. “It’s not just a question of donating to buy a raincoat for a refugee, but ‘how is my position in the world related to this little boy who needs a refuge and a raincoat?’”

She is enlisting the help of professionals and experts in receptivity – people who work in therapy, education, performance and conflict mediation, and who she refers to as ‘”master listeners”.

She wants to learn from their more highly developed listening skills and tools for communicating in subtle, nuanced ways, and see how these could be applied “in a political context where listening is required and largely absent among the general public.”


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