Practicing Equitable and Transformative Listening
Sonja Fritzsche February 11, 2019
Just over one year ago, the weeks of testimony of the sister army of survivors culminated in the sentencing of Larry Nassar. As a faculty leader at Michigan State University, it is now my obligation to reflect on what Chris Long recently called our “Failures to Listen.” When have I failed to listen? My blog post “Recognize your Power” challenges leaders at all levels to put their values into practice and start today to end this toxic culture and bring about real change. Still for many, listening is hard and takes practice. There are two types of listening that I have committed to practicing daily.
Equitable listening means listening to everyone’s story with the same attentiveness, openness, and credence regardless of race, gender, class, ability, or other difference and their intersections. The equitable listener is mindful of the effect that implicit bias has on listening and works to counteract this. This listener silence the voices in their head, so that they can actually hear.
Transformative listening is built on a foundation of equitable listening. It refers to the willingness of the listener to truly hear what the other is saying, be changed by their story, and take action as a result. The concept is based on narrative estrangement theory. The best known example is Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation” effect (Verfremdungseffekt) that renders “the familiar strange” and leads to a “critical detachment” from the play on the stage, so that the audience may reflect and learn from the story as its unfolds. (1) Similarly, the listener in the “transformative” listening model also experiences a distancing as they listen to the speaker tell of their reality, an encounter with the world different than that known to the listener. The story renders a previously indiscernible truth apparent, an inconceivable experience real. Through critical reflection the listener is transformed and able to see the world and their place in it in new ways. The courageous listener then uses their power and privilege as a leader to act on behalf of the speaker.
Here is a more detailed outline of this process:
- The listener with power must promise confidentiality and practice vulnerability, humility, courage, patience, and be open to recognizing their mistakes or failures.
- As they truly hear, they are distanced from close emotional identification with the situation, move outside of themselves, and encounter the story with a full critical openness to the different experience of the other.
- The transformation occurs with estrangement from their own lived reality as they perceive informal power structures and power dynamics and privileges. What was hidden becomes recognizable.
- They are able to see their own position of power and privilege either in a new way or for the first time. Perhaps it had gone unnoticed, had been overlooked, or denied. Through the act of self-reflection come new insights. New ways of acting.
- With humility the listener gains the courage to act, empower others, and ensure accountability.
An opportunity for transformative listening occurs when the speaker is the less powerful “Other” who is “different” and the listener occupies a position of authority. Much has been written about the potential risks taken by the speaker in this situation. Yet it is the experience of the listener and their awkwardness and embarrassment that too often results in a silencing of the speaker. The listener interrupts or looks away. They recognize a past mistake and feel exposed. “What will the others think?” Or they feel powerless or unsupported to act and are dismissive. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how I can really help you. It is just the way things are.” The listener’s privilege can render them unable to accept the story and take it seriously. “It must be a misunderstanding. So-and-so isn’t like that with me.” Or “Surely they just forgot or it was an oversight.” The listener can explain the behavior away. “Oh they are just like that. They don’t mean anything by it.” Or “It’s not my job.”
As a listener, I have thought or said some of these things. As a literary and film scholar, I have long worked with stories that, through an estrangement narrative, were created precisely to reveal the truths of social justice. As a foreign language teacher, I have practiced everyday working with a diverse array of students of different backgrounds, abilities, and learning styles in an intercultural, intersectional laboratory of language that is my classroom. Yet, when it has come to certain moments in my leadership positions, while I have listened, I have not always learned nor known how to act. Sometimes the path was clear, but sometimes I was uncertain and did not know who to ask. Perhaps I did not want to create conflict or did not have experience in implementing a policy, or I was tired that week, or preoccupied and busy with a thousand other things. I retreated into the well-being of my privilege.
As Maria Stehle has observed, there is a tendency for those with privilege to practice “safe-listening” or “comfortable listening” and “safe-speaking” in order to ensure their own psychological and “physical safety.” (2) The speaker’s story might not only be uncomfortable to the listener, it likely challenges the status quo, disrupts normalcy, or otherwise is seen as “uncivil” behavior in the existing structures of organizational power and privilege. It likely lays open race, gender, class, or other implicit or open biases that can be difficult to discuss and quickly become unpleasant. The listener considers their own position within an organization and whether the speaker is worth the risk associated with advocating on their behalf.
And it is my job to prioritize the person, the human being in front of me. With the power of my leadership position comes responsibility to speak for those who cannot and enact change on their behalf. As my colleague Jennifer Johnson writes, a good leader is “secure enough in themselves to be able to really hear, understand, and even feel what the speaker is saying without becoming threatened or defensive by it, but instead to join that person in exploring what solutions might be.” (3) This type of participatory decision-making respects the speaker and helps to ensure a sense of safety and confidentiality. A good leader will have worked to instill trust through their equity, openness, and transparency of practice. A good leader asks questions. A good leader mentors and supports those she oversees with values-based community building, implicit bias training, education in best practices, and a collective formulation of transparent policies for future conflict resolution. She also manages up to require the same from those leaders above her as they work together to help her problem-solve and excel in her position.
And whatever your position, it is possible to lead from below, in the middle, or above. This job of leadership belongs to all of us. You, the listener, have the power to choose to engage with the speaker’s story. To ignore it, whether out of helplessness, inadequate training, busyness, or at worst collusion, silences them and negates their courage. Remember that courage is both “of the heart” and also “of rage”. (4) You must be bold enough to respect and honor the speaker who has trusted you with their story. To act means to document, to ask advice of the unit head, to call out bad behavior, to invite a speaker and organize a workshop, to change policies and the culture in which they are implemented. To mandatory report in the case of relationship violence and sexual misconduct. Anything less is to enable or be complicit. When we work together in a community-engaged way, we will bring about culture change.
This essay was inspired by Xhercis Mendez’ work on transformative justice, in particular the need to transform academic culture based on values and practices that support diversity, equity, and transparency. (5)
I wish to thank all of those who provided me with feedback on this blog post.
(1) A model for this narrative transformation is the alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt), a literary style, one example of which is outlined in Bertolt Brecht’s theory of Epic Theatre and also is commonly associated with the stories by Franz Kafka and of the literary fantastic. See Bertolt Brecht, “Verfremdungseffekte in der chinesischen Schauspielkunst,“ edited by Jan Knopf. Brecht Handbuch Vol. 4.Springer, 2003, p. 188-191. See also Brecht, Bertolt. “On Chinese Acting”, translated by Eric Bentley. The Tulane Drama Review 6.1 (1961): 130–136.
(2) Maria Stehle, “When to Shut Up and Listen and When to Speak Up: Reflections on Collaboration, Race, and Activism” blog Digital Feminist Collective. https://digitalfeministcollective.net/index.php/category/research/
(3) I wish to thank Jennifer Johnson for this idea outlined in her e-mail (February 2, 2019). She is C. S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health in the College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University, Flint.
(4) Thank you to Chris Long who pointed out the connection between “courage” and the French word for heart – le coeur. Sara Ahmed also points to the “rage” in “courage” in her book, Leading a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.
(5) Xhercis Mendez work on transformative justice can be found https://xhercis.com/what-is-transformative-justice/