By Lani Parker and Marion Damnit
This is Part 2 of a blog from October 20th about a project we did called The Listening Space, which was an experimental, multiracial space for peer listening and support, aimed at disabled people and people with long-term health conditions. In part 1 we talked about our thinking behind the project. Part 2 talks about how we put it into practice. It will make more sense if you read part 1 first.
How do we make this real?
In the first session we created ground rules as a group, to guide how to be with each other in the space. We went into detail about each person’s access needs and talked about what it means to be listened to and what good listening looks like for each person in the space. We also talked about not flattening out differences and power inequalities between us, and not presuming that our own experiences are the same as someone else’s. We talked about the importance of listening to each other across our differences, of reaching towards each other for connection, while not erasing the ways in which we may be implicated in each other’s oppression.
We began each session with a short grounding exercise. We have learned from Healing Justice London that this is important because listening is an embodied practice. If you feel more grounded in your body it’s easier to make connections with other people. Experiences of oppression can lead to us being disconnected from our body and from others. This is why we felt the grounding exercise was important, particularly in an online space, but this needed more work.
We then had a quick go round in which each person said something about how they were feeling (approximately 2 minutes). We then had another go round in which each person could say whatever they wanted for 3 minutes. One of our participants, who was very involved in shaping the group, suggested using an overarching question or theme for the week. We then had a ‘response round’. One participant suggested to start each response round with thinking of something that struck you from other people’s rounds. This is a technique from narrative therapy. This was an effective way of encouraging connection between the listeners and something which we will develop in future spaces.
We shared time equally, so each person had the same amount of time to speak (or otherwise express themselves) without interruption. As facilitators we also took part in the rounds, which reduced the sense of hierarchy. This worked well and we would recommend others to do this. I (Marion) found equal timings particularly useful as I often worry I have spoken too much or not enough. The part of me that was socialised as a woman doesn’t want to take up space, but my whiteness and middle-class-ness does. This type of taking up space has been facilitated by the professionalisation/depoliticisation of consciousness raising in academic Women’s Studies and in counselling, as well as white feminist subcultures.
The format of specified times where one person speaks and others are quiet can also feel a bit unnatural, and may be inaccessible to neurodivergent people and others. I (Marion) also wondered if ‘talking about your feelings’ in the way mainstream therapy teaches may be normative. Mel Baggs has written about ‘nice lady therapists’ who pressure people to express feelings in an abstract way, which is culturally middle class, and impossible for some neurodiverse people.
Participation and trust online
Listening to people online is different from face to face. It seemed more difficult online to express empathy in an organic, sincere way, that is not misunderstood, especially at the beginning of the pandemic when doing everything online was new to many, and while we were a group that didn’t all know each other already. As a facilitator, I (Lani) got the impression that people didn’t feel fully listened to from the unstructured responses that were given. Having the meetings online also made it more difficult to facilitate the feelings and experiences of fear, panic and dread produced by the crisis while remaining calm and showing empathy. Not being in the same physical space creates a distance which makes the quality of the connection different – as well as adding technical issues such as time lags. This was another reason why the grounding exercises were important.
It was good that the space was flexible so people could come and go as it suited them. Those who participated regularly in the space felt supported. However, we think that we underestimated the time needed to really build up trusting relationships. There were some who had already built strong relationships who engaged in the group to a greater extent, while others may not have felt listened to and we are aware that one person left feeling triggered. It would have been useful to build into the guidelines more on how we can be accountable to each other if and when we’ve caused harm.
Practising deep listening and accountability can play a key part in social change, relationship building and healing. Peer support, and along with it, deep listening and solidarity, is in no way only about talking. Not everyone likes to talk. And although the Listening Space focussed on this, there are many different ways to listen to each other. Social justice spaces and disabled communities have developed lots of tools for communication, and there is much more to do.