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.)

Thursday, 26 January 2012

happy birthday

Having recorded, edited and published a podcast in record time today, I wanted to write a few words about the rather remarkable woman I met and talked to in that podcast.

You can hear a little excerpt of it here:

Don"t be frightened of it (mp3)

Her name is Jess Thom.

And her life - in her own words - is enriched by Tourette's Syndrome.

Jess is one of the 10% or so of people with Tourette's who have what's called coprolalia. In plain terms that's the kind of Tourette's that makes you swear and say strange things out loud.

There are many hundreds of thousands of people with other versions of Tourette's that have less sensational symptoms. Physical spasms. Verbal spasms. Twitches, twists and turns.

But it seems that most people with whatever strain of this bizarre neurological quirk they're blessed with have in common, is that they are not in control of their tics.

Take a moment to consider what that might mean. Imagine yourself energetically or forcefully swearing or shouting your pin number out, or coming out with extraordinary combinations of words like "Fourteenth century alien birds dangle before your eyes." Or indeed continuously punching yourself. Or convulsing.

Not when you choose to.

But when your messed up neurosystem chooses to.

I heard Jess speak on the radio after David Cameron's insanely clumsy insult aimed at Ed Balls. Cameron claimed that facing the Shadow Chancellor in the Commons was like sitting opposite someone with Tourette's. (Nice work by the way David. Where did that one come from? From you of all people? Who has good reason to understand as a father what it's like to deal with a genetic badly dealt hand. Well done for apologising so quickly. Must try harder.)

The reaction of the British public was immediate and strong. People were appalled at Cameron's insensitivity. So the media, sensing a story, jumped on board and within just a few hours Jess and other people with Tourette's were being given air space.

Some air space.

The interviews I heard with Jess were short, which obviously compressed any hope of a rich understanding of something so complex. But I heard through the compression and the crazy noises a powerful, determined and positive voice. She talked about the project Tourettes Hero which reclaims the absurd tics, laughs at them and celebrates them as a spur for creativity. (Like Ratboy's brilliant drawing of one of Jess's tics at the top of this post.)

And as I listened to Jess, I began to wonder what would happen if I invited her to talk for longer.

I wondered if this positive, life affirming voice might have even more to say given more space, more time and less of a news based agenda.

So I got in touch. And we arranged a time to talk.

You can hear our conversation here if you like. (It's called "Happy Birthday" which is one of Jess's more regular tics.)

Someone commented on hearing it that as the conversation went on, it became less about having Tourette's and more about being a human.

And Jess's philosophy in terms of dealing with her condition (and her advice to anyone else who's frightened of their own disability) is a pretty human one. And it goes a bit like this:

1. Find a language to express yourself.
2. Expect more from others.
3. Take responsibility for yourself.

As I heard those words, I released that what she was saying was touching me quite profoundly.

But at the time I wasn't sure why. I was busy having a conversation after all.

But I think now, having listened back to it a lot and having mixed and published the conversation - which I barely edited by the way - now I know why I was touched so personally by these simple ideas.

And it's to do with fear.

Jess's approach counteracts fear.

The fear around disability; for sure.

But also: the fear around difference.

And that's where I got hooked.

For years I've said that The Dialogue Project's work is about understanding difference. It's even the title of this blog.

For me that is the human project: to try and understand more about people who aren't like us.

Whoever we are. And whoever they are.

Not because it's a nice thing to do. But because if you look around, most of our problems come from not understanding each other.

The wealthy CEO doesn't understand (or imagine) the loss of dignity in the sacked worker.

The sacked worker doesn't understand (or see) the wealthy CEO's passion for creating jobs.

The mother doesn't understand (or interpret) the recklessness of her teenage daughter.

The husband doesn't understand (or know about) his wife's depression.

And the audio obsessed son doesn't understand (even though he tries to) the restriction of his mother's tinnitus.

A lack of understanding is I suspect the norm.

And that's okay sometimes. As I get older I'm realising it's not necessary to understand everything. (Damn it, that hurts.)

But sometimes, dangerous things are drawn into the vacuum that a lack of understanding creates.

Things like fear, frustration, an overbearing desire to solve or resolve. Anger, hatred and apathy can all fill that available space. With consequence.

So, for someone who's interested in how to understand difference, to hear such a crystal clear definition of what action you can take to overcome the fear of it had a powerful effect on me. I felt a little bit shaken up. In a good way.

And in our conversation, Jess reminded me that understanding difference isn't just an idea.

It's a practical thing.

So, as I got home and unpacked my microphones, I felt motivated to share the conversation in its long form as soon as possible.

So I stayed up late and did it.

And now it's out there. Here.

And already people are telling me it's having an effect on them too.

Oh yes. And Jess reminded me of something else too.

It's okay to laugh.

Thanks Jess.

Power to your sharp elbows.

(And next time stop talking about biscuits all the time and offer me one.)

P.S. Since this post Jess has received even more media exposure, including this 'in her own words' piece in the Guardian.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

four strokes

A short post to accompany a conversation that's not made it to the blog until today.

It's a short edit and an unusual one.

It's called four strokes. You can listen to it here (on iTunes) or here. And read it here.

It's about two people who've both been beaten with a cane.

For one of them it was agonisingly painful.

For the other it was exquisitely pleasurable.

Nikki is a thoughtful woman and a pro-sub which means she enjoys being dominated sexually. She's a liberated, intelligent and sensitive person with a gentle gaze and an incredible focus when you talk to her.

Stephen is a philosophical man and enjoys many things, including talking and listening, but as far as I know he has no particular attachment to dominating or being dominated. What he does have is a rather wonderful capacity for describing intense personal experiences in such a way that genuinely 'takes you there.'

And I suppose why I wanted to publish it today is that I'm particularly interested at the moment in how we perceive things. And how much influence we have over our experience of life.

What is it that can make something so painful for one person and so pleasurable for another?

Are we really such powerful interpreters of our own experiences?

Can we really determine how good or bad something feels?

And if we can - why don't we do it more often?

Have a listen.

Have a think.

And feel free to let me know if you're someone who's consciously changed the way you perceive pain.

(Or pleasure.)