The communal nature of speaking and listening

Patrick Goh, John Kingsley Martin


Relationships are constituted through speaking and listening. Just as behaviour breeds behaviour, speaking and listening breeds relationships.

It doesn’t take much to notice that in organisational settings, speaking is often privileged over listening. This starts even before anyone even joins an organisation. When we go through job adverts, what do we see? You’d be forgiven to think that organisations only want people with excellent written, oratory and influencing skills. Job descriptions hardly ever list listening skills as essential. And yet, without listening, there can be no genuine collaboration. By genuine, we mean conversations that result in mutuality and collaboration.

The traditional Western approach to communication is based on ‘debate’. Even today, in the House of Commons at Westminster, front bench politicians are required to speak from behind a red line drawn on the floor. It’s calculated to keep them at a distance beyond a sword’s length from their opponents. This strange tradition is a somewhat novel reminder of the adversarial basis of politics in the UK. Another notorious example is Prime Ministers’ Question Time which has achieved a huge following among television audiences worldwide. Apparently people love to witness the spectacle of leaders tearing into each other.

We do love a form of communication that is tantamount to verbal jousting? We even elect Presidents on the back of it. The televised debates between Hilary and Trump, we argue, were designed to demonstrate gladiatorial skill over content. Dare we say, a requirement to demonstrate ability to work collaboratively might have resulted in America’s first woman president!

The Japanese theologian Masao Takenaka[i] likened the Western concept of debating to ‘ya-ya chambara’ – a form of Japanese sword-fencing where combatants say their name, shout “ya-ya” and then proceed to do battle. He noticed that in theology, this is an approach based on deductive metaphysics rather than inductive learning. It is an approach of confrontation rather than mutual sharing.

We believe that it is only by re-learning the art of listening can we communicate ways that avoids polarization and genuinely harness the intelligence and power of groups, networks or communities of people. A prerequisite for this is learning to listen in ways that creates “common sense”. Without deep listening, we are not able to ‘think together in relationship’.

Thinking together implies that we no longer take our own position as final. We relax our grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities that result simply from being in a relationship with others – possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred.

“I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen, it doesn’t matter to what, whether to a bird, to the wind in the leaves, to the rushing waters, or how you listen in a dialogue with yourself, to your conversation in various relationships with your intimate friends, your wife or husband. If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate, we hardly listen at all to what is being said. In that state there is no value at all. One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence, in which this whole background is in abeyance, then it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.”


Appreciative Listening

Healthy and productive relationships come from “valuing listening” not “adversarial listening”. In our competitive world, listening often has an adversarial edge. We listen in order to debate, so we look out for what we don’t like, for weaknesses, to identify problems. Instead of focusing on what’s good about what the other person is saying we spend listening moments to marshal our next move to “win”.

An appreciative approach, on the other hand, looks out for what makes positive contributions. We ask ourselves how – what the other person is saying – is helpful, creative, and significant? In this way their positive contribution can be woven into social reality that is being created in the conversation.

The following is great advice from Harlene Anderson of the Taos Institute, New Mexico, on ‘authentic listening’:

“How can you invite another person to talk with you? In our experience, it involves authentically living what we desire for ourselves, that we are trusted as a worthwhile human beings no matter what our life circumstances might be; that others accept us no matter how nonsensical our words and actions may seem; and that we have a safe and ample opportunity for full expression”

“Listen, hear, and speak respectfully. Respect is a relational activity; it is not an individual internal characteristic. Respect is having and showing regard and consideration for the worthiness of the other. It is communicated by attitude, tone, posture, gestures, eyes, words, and surroundings”.

“Listen, hear, and speak as a learner. Be genuinely curious about the other and sincerely believe that you can learn something from them”.

“Listen and respond with sincere interest in what the other person is talking about – their experiences, their words, their feelings and so forth. Listen, hear, and speak to understand. Do not understand too quickly. Understanding is never-ending”.

“Be reflective about what you think you know. Knowing interferes with dialogue. It can preclude learning about the other, being inspired by them, and the spontaneity intrinsic to genuine dialogue. Knowing also risks maintaining or increasing power differences”.

“Listen, hear, and speak with care. Pauses are important. Pause before you speak. Give the other person time to finish. And give yourself a moment to think about what you are going to say and how you will say it”.

“Listen, hear, and speak in a self-reflective manner. Do not minimize the complexity of a dialogue by reducing it or its process to techniques. Listening, hearing and speaking are not techniques. They are relational activities and processes.”

All this can readily be summed up in words of Jesus known as The Golden Rule, “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

Many years ago, I (Patrick) had the privilege of spending some time with the Director of the Public Conversations Project in the US, Sallyann Roth. She  offers a very useful guide on how to have fruitful conversations: ‘Listening to Connect’.

We invite you to try the useful suggestions on the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ for constructive conversations devised by Sallyann. They can be used as a framework or as ground rules for facilitating difficult, struck or important conversations.

Happy listening!

Listening to Connect – a Useful Guide 


 Masao Takenaka, God is Rice, Geneva : World Council of Churches, ©1986

[ii] Krishnamurti: Reflections on the Self, J. Krishnamurti & Raymond Martin (Editor), 1997

2 thoughts on “The communal nature of speaking and listening

  1. Great stuff. Listening is key and your advice is challenging for me, especially about “Do not understand too quickly!” I think there are some mistakes on your site. The last four rows in the table have no content in the “avoid” cell and the “strive for” cells have things that I don’t think oyu would want to embrace to be a good listener!

    Thanks again, I look forward to reading some more, Nick

    1. Hey Nick – thank you for your kind comments and for your spotting the mistakes! Goes to show how many people read my blogg!
      I’ve made the amendments by posting the pdf table.

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