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  • Suzanne Axelsson

The Art of Listening to Understand

For over a decade I have been focusing on listening as a form of democracy - not me listening to the children, but how we all can listen to each other.

This has continually evolved over time.

Now I think I might refer to it as listening as a form of social justice - because there is so much listening inequity in society where some peoples are more listened to than others, or their messages carry more weight... and that others are ignored or deliberately silenced.


As many of you know I have been using philosophy with children as a technique to create a listening equality in the groups that I have worked with. it not only creates a space for the children to practice sharing their opinions and listening to each other - it is also a space for adults to practice being quiet and letting the children truly explore their ideas together (and learning how to facilitate only when necessary - and finding different ways to do that).


I think some of the skills that I was teaching the children so they could listen to each other, and also phrases they could use to help them in their dialogues as listeners, can be useful for adults... here are some of those phrases, that I have adapted for a more adult turn of phrase...


- in the light of this new information I have changed my mind. (for the children it was - I have changed my mind)

- oh, I didn't know that before I guess I was wrong (the children used this - as it's important to help the children that there is no shame in admitting you were wrong, especially when lacking information to explain)

- I need to rethink (my children would use the phrase, I need a thinking pause - as I had always used this term as a part of our philosophy sessions, and it became their way of expressing they needed extra time to think, or rethink)

- I'll consider what you say (because sometimes we need more time to work things out. I can sometimes not agree with someone, only later to change my mind when I have had more time to process, or when even more information helps me make connections... even if we don't say this out loud, it can be a good thing to have as an internal mantra. The children seldom used this, but it was always implied at the start of philosophy sessions that we should listen with our ears, eyes, hearts and minds)

- I can't support my own opinion, I don't know why I think that. (the children would use, I don't know why, as the first step to admitting that they don't know how to argue their point - sometimes others would help them out to find the words or concepts, other times it created the space to be able to listen to new ideas that made more sense)

- I never thought of that before (this happened frequently with the children, as there was always so much new to be learning from each other - it always made everything feel very exciting... but I feel that this sometimes makes it a little bit scary for adults because certainty seems to be where adults place their sense of security, so suddenly stepping out into the unknown can feel risky).


I think it is so important that we are open enough to listen to differing opinions, not with the aim to find faults, but with the aim to understand the other person. This does not mean we have to agree with everything other people say, only that we are open to the possibility of changing our minds if what is being said makes sense and adds to our understanding of the world.

Sometimes we will encounter people who say/do racist and other harmful things and listening to understand such people becomes very hard. For me it is not about understanding the message they are conveying (because I just don't understand that) but to try and understand why they have come to such conclusions so that I can change the way I communicate so that I am more likely to be listened to (because in the end I want them to change their minds, but if they are not listening because they feel compelled to defend themselves then I know that will never happen). I feel, as educators, it is important that we communicate so that others can listen easily, rather than putting all the listening responsibility on the other... At the same time I strive to teach young children how to listen to make it an easier process for them (not only to listen, but also be aware of how others listen, and that we all listen in slightly different ways). In my soon to be released book The Original Learning Approach (January 3rd 2023) there is a whole chapter about listening - and the other 9 essential threads... I think risk might actually be a crucial part of listening.

In the beginning of my book I describe babies learning to walk as risky play... but if you think about it every time we take a step forward we risk losing balance as we stand for a moment on one foot and then the other... and if we are running we leave the ground entirely trusting that we will land sure footed.

It is the same with listening. Every time we listen we take the risk that we will hear something that will cast us into cognitive somersaults where everything we thought we knew can be unravelled and needs to be rewoven to exclude redundant facts and include more correct ones (until such a time they need updating again).


Talking of somersaults - we would never expect anyone to be able to do acrobatics without practice - so why are we not giving ourselves the same permission to practice listening? Also we set up the environment to train in acrobatics safely so that we do not harm ourselves - and we need to be doing the same thing with listening. Children are still practising words and how to put them in sentences, how to decipher what others say, how to be kind, how facts can connected and creatively linked to form ideas - and many mistakes can be made that can hurt. As educators we need to create safe and brave spaces that allow children (and ourselves) to make mistakes, but also where the consequences do not cause too much harm. This is very similar to my approach to "risky" play - that yes children need to be able to make mistakes that might results in small ouches, but that the benefits should always outweigh the harm, and we must also ensure there are no hazards or true danger.

Our approach to listening must mean that children might say things that hurt like a small graze or bruise but that the learning for all concerned is beneficial - it should not include things that intentionally demean, belittle or discriminate others - and if they occur accidentally we need to ensure that we make changes to avoid them happening accidentally again - through dialogues, stories, play, etc and the removal of discriminatory resources and approaches that fuel the accidental transmission that any form of discrimination is OK and should be accepted as a part of the norm. It is a massive responsibility.

I believe much more important than teaching facts - but how to listen to facts.





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