Monday, 5 October 2015

Why don't you try listening to someone else for a change?

Academics aren't always very good at listening. They're used to broadcasting: to saying how it is, how it should be, how it might be. And they're often rule-governed achievers, who in their youth jumped over schooling hurdle after schooling hurdle until they were awarded their PhD, only to look around and say, puzzled: 'now what?' Coming top of lots of classes, lots of times, will do that to you.

But now the broadcasting virus seems to have got out of hand in our political life as well. Everywhere there are people shouting. Shouting on Twitter about 'Red Tories', or telling you to 'go and join the Tories if that's what you think' (many will). Shouting in the street, treating journalists at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester as if Conservatives were some sort of separate race to everyone else, rather than the UK's most successful political party (above). Spitting at people. Issuing threats. Wearing Guy Fawkes masks and pigs' heads in a kind of adolescent shove-it-up-them jamboree. Wondering whether they should follow or even interact with 'Blairites' or 'Tories' online.

Now don't get us wrong. Most of the protests on the edge of the Conservatives' conference were a real credit to Britain - a family day out that showed the depth of feeling in communities feeling deeply, deeply battered, dissauded and angry. There's plenty of nasty stuff going in the other direction as well. And the policies of this present Conservative administration have driven many to an understandable fury. The cruel and unnecessary Work Capability Assessments, benefits sanctions, Bedroom Tax and now Tax Credits cuts, along with the chaos surrounding Personal Independence Payments, have driven many Britons to the brink (or over the brink) of despair. Perhaps a bit of anger - or a lot of anger - is in order. No-one's chronicled those changes or their painful consequences more than we have, thank you very much

But this level of rage - and partisanship, reflected in the falling number of really marginal seats and the increasing divide between young and old Britons' voting choices - seems rather new. Hatred of the political 'other side', exhibited in a silly but telling way by all those 'Never Kissed a Tory' t-shirts. Hatred of the old. Hatred of the young. Hatred of the press. Our remedy? Listening, rather than talking.

Listening is critical for any organisation. But you have to do it right. You have to make time and space for it - to decide to do it. This is called active listening in the jargon. It doesn't just need silence and a bit of time. It needs positive encouragement - architecture, background noise, social will, different words and language - to really take a hold. The BBC has a whole series of programmes designed to demonstrate what this sounds like, if you're interested. The main thing you need? The ability truly to empathise with the person who you're talking with, rather than just to seek confirmation of what you think - or what you once might have done or thought - in their words. It's easy to come back with 'oh, that once happened to me', or 'I used to think that', or something along those lines. It's an attempt to show fellow feeling, to demonstrate a connection. But it's not listening. 

What listening is actually like is clear from a recent and heartfelt blogpost by the elections expert Ian Warren, who once worked as a consultant for the United Kingdom Independence Party before working on Labour's 2015 General Election campaign. This is what he says about one of the main threats Labour is facing at the moment: 

Labour needs to understand the threat it faces from UKIP. The first phase in doing so is to look past yourself and your pre-conceived views on how UKIP supporters see the world and just... listen. Get humble, disarm the situation and listen. Get out of your own way, quieten down, and make an effort to understand what they say to you. See the world through their eyes. Understand how and why they're angry. Come to peace with the FACT that the vast, vast majority of them are NOT racists. They are making largely rational decisions with the best information they have. I have been asking people to be prepared to have the door thrown in their face. It means they are reluctant to do this work. I completely understand. But until you disarm the context you are NEVER going to engage. This 'disarming' is not a fancy-ass theory, it's a human being making a simple effort to understand. I say 'It might not work but please try'.

So instead of shouting (say) at Conservatives or UKIP, why don't you go out and have a coffee with someone who voted Conservative in 2015? Why don't you have lunch with a Ukipper? Why don't you have a beer with a Liberal Democrat? Conservatives, why don't you get hold of a Corbynite and have a good old chinwag with them over a latte? If you're a Liz Kendall fan, why don't you invite a Corbynite over for dinner? It's got to be worth a try. Let's imagine for a moment that you're attached to Labour, and you don't like this government's nasty record on benefit 'reform'. Wouldn't you want Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to listen to and empathise with real people? You would? Well, don't then bully and berate Conservative activists and voters who may agree with you (the data suggests that many do). Listening, really listening, and only then talking is more likely to lead to a meeting or a changing of minds than shouting at people - or blocking them on Twitter. As the comedian Robert Webb, of Peep Show fame, put it over the summer: 'I don't think that people who voted Tory last time are bad people. They're your mum, your granddad'. They're pretty likely to go on voting Conservative if they're screamed at for their troubles, that's for sure. And remember: jeer and abuse fellow democrats if you will. If you push them further Rightwards, or get them torn down and replaced, there are plenty of even less democratic people waiting in the wings to take their place.

Bottom line: if you don't listen, no-one will listen to you. More and more people will think that policymakers and politicians don't speak their language (eye-wateringly, painfully high numbers of Britons think this of Labour at the moment). You'll go on spouting nonsense such as the non-voter myth, that young and marginal voters could swing the next General Election (they can't). You'll go on talking in your own echo chamber. To yourself. Remember the pain of 10.01pm on 7 May 2015, Labour people? That was the last echo chamber being torn apart. The next time, it'll feel worse if you go on like this.

And the worst thing, the most damaging thing? It's that the ranters and haters are doing themselves more damage than they are frightening the ranted against and hated. The latter suffer only puzzlement, and perhaps a passing frisson of fear; the former imbibe a great big draught of narcissism, self-loathing and negativity right into their very core.

If we want to avoid that as a country, and as a people, we could all start listening to each other for a change.