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This week, I was asked to give a talk on the art of listening to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. It was a really lovely challenge to distill my knowledge, and I thought I would share it here as well.
I have three observations to share with you, and have woven through a few tips for how you might also deepen your listening capacity.
Close your eyes for the next 10 seconds and just listen.
What did you hear?
Perhaps you heard the bus outside … your computer … your vibrating phone .. somebody breathing next to you.
“Listening is the art of making others eloquent.”
So how do we get from hearing sounds in a room to hearing eloquence?
Every Sunday, after breakfast, my family had Family Meeting, which was our opportunity to resolve the grand questions of our small society.
In the week prior, an agenda was stuck to the refrigerator. Any citizens with pressing matters could register an item for discussion.
My mom was chair, and my dad served as the family secretary, recording who was present, items of old business that needed to be resolved, new business introduced, and finally, important family milestones.
There is a great video of one family meeting in which the topic of dessert was discussed.
My mother suggests that we alternate between fruit and cookies.
My sister, at the age of about 5, has another suggestion: “how about fruit, cookie, cookie, fruit?”
If you look back at the meeting notes for that day, my father has written: “a socratic dialogue ensued.”
So my first observation is that, to be a skillful listener, it really helps to have had the experience of being listened to.
I was lucky that I had parents who cared so deeply about what I had to say.
But we don’t have to rely on luck
You can choose to surround yourself with people who really listen to you — and not just when there is a crisis, or because they work for you and thus have to listen to you.
We can all think of a few people in our lives who just seem to be great listeners.
Talk with those people regularly, so that you are reminded of what good listening feels like, and can do the same for others.
In college, I decided to explore a new form of dance that I’d always been curious to try: West African dance.
After an embarrassing first year of off-beat awkwardness, my body eventually learned a wholly different language for expressing humor, strength, and vulnerability.
I went on to dance with a multi-cultural troupe for seven years, at places like the United Nations and Lincoln Center.
I’m now one of handful of people in the world who know about 25 dances from the Mahou people of Ivory Coast.
Weird, right? I know.
But it turns out I learned something about listening!
My second observation is that the body often conveys more information than the voice.
About 90% of human communication is non-verbal — which means that we are picking up all kinds of cues about what people think and feel by watching their faces, by watching how they position their bodies, and by sensing the physical reactions of other listeners.
You might improve your powers of listening by doing things that seem more like creating noise and commotion.
Dance, soccer, trapeze … anything that helps you attain a deeper state of embodiment, so that you are better able to recognize human communication in the body language of others.
As you may know, I’ve been facilitating professionally for over a dozen years.
I’ve worked with lots of different organizations that need to have some kind of discussion in order to solve a strategic problem.
I also work as a graphic facilitator, which means that I illustrate conversations in real time.
This allows me to add an element of art and imagination to my listening.
Suffice it to say that I have heard a lot of people talk about a lot of stuff. Coherence is rare.
My last observation is that truly transformational group processes require listening on at least three levels.
We’ve already discussed the body language.
The second level is the spoken content of the discussion.
Here, as a facilitator, I’m keeping a few things in mind at once: first, the thing we were supposed to be talking about. Second, the live material that folks are sharing. And third, a kind of cache of what everybody has said.
This is important because I’ll use all of this material to ask questions that draw together themes, and offer options for moving forward.
The third level of listening relates to the emotional landscape in the room.
Here, I’m listening for subtle changes in tone, or a particularly direct or challenging question — observing how people are feeling, regardless of what they are saying.
Many of you reading this are are embedded in groups that are trying to accomplish ambitious things, and so here is one idea for improving listening as a component of exercising leadership.
Try shifting your own view of yourself in the group from “leader,” “Expert,” or “participant” to “coach.”
This involves making fewer statements and asking more questions, modeling a kind of listening that empowers people to solve their own problems instead of solving problems for them.
So those are my top observations about the art of listening. Feel free to share yours as well!
I have spent the last few months traveling around the country to visit everyday Americans in their homes, shadow them at their jobs, and attend their houses of worship, in order to discern what motivates them to do things that are civic. (Findings to be released at the end of this year!)
In over 100 in-depth conversations with people in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Phoenix, Chicago, and Boston, I have asked participants the same question:
Can you tell me the last time you had an interaction with government?
This question stumps people. They often pause for a considerable think, and find themselves at a loss to come up with any examples.
For those who do, invariably, the answer returns: “does _____ count?”
Do the police count? Do parking tickets count? Does my health insurance count?
In essence, people are asking if they have correctly identified what government is. These are people who took public transportation earlier that day to get to work, or whose kids are completing third grade.
While the answers to other questions surface a variety of complicated trends about Americans’ relationship with civic duty – as one might expect from a country as colorful and many-minded as the United States – the responses to this one question are unitary. I find this astounding.
It would seem that Americans do not confidently know how to recognize our government in our daily lives. Out of the many services, experiences, exchanges, pressures, and opportunities we encounter in the course of a day, we cannot pick out the ones that stem from government authority and resources.
It is possible that this is a problem of the counterfactual – in other words, that so much of the business of government is preventing many small disasters that, when effectively averted, go unrecognized (think: ensuring food standards in your favorite takeout joint down the street).
Another possibility is that people – as much market actors as they are civic actors – see and value the consumer services or products they acquire when they pay for them, an event that happens multiple times per day (in the grocery store, at the movies, in the hair salon). We also “pay” for government services and experiences, but we do it in a lump sum, usually once per year, in a very painful experience wrought with the anxiety of “will I get a return or will I owe money?” The experience is not so much about gain of critical services for society, but rather about loss of hard-earned income. We are not regularly reminded that we have invested in a larger system.
These are merely initial hypotheses, however.
In my tenure as a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society this year, I want to answer three questions:
My bias is that government is valuable - and that things we cannot see, we do not value. I literally want to make government visible, but I know I need some data about how to best pursue this goal.
My thinking right now is that a solid investigation of this topic might involve three activities:
If this project is successful, we will have collected some useful answers to this conundrum, and begun to transform the public mindset about how embedded government is within our everyday lives. I am most personally invested in the American context, but I could envision the findings being relevant for governments globally.
Now, I am issuing a Request for Collaborators!
Perhaps you ….
….have been mulling over the same observation and want to discuss it;
… lead an organization with an institutional interest in supporting this kind of applied research and problem-solving;
… are a master storyteller looking to help unpack and explain this phenomenon; or
… are an everyday American who wants to let me shadow your daily experiences.
If so, please contact me as follows — and thanks!
email@example.com || @katekrontiris
Since the news of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri last week, I’ve been thinking about what I personally can do to address this systemic disease of police brutality in the United States.
I used to work on innovative and award-winning problem-solving justice projects in New York City, many of which brought me into collaboration with committed and fair public safety officers. I know that not all police officers act as if they are above the law, and I also know that it takes a certain sacrifice to work in service of public safety every single day.
However, police excessive use of force is an institutionalized problem across this country, not only in the most horrific cases of death, but also in the everyday profiling of (mostly) men of color in stores, in their cars, and on the streets.
I have also been reading about who holds elected power in Ferguson (mostly white, in a city where the overwhelming majority identify as African American), and one particularly dark piece about a similar state of affairs in Alabama, and I have found myself more depressed and unhopeful than I have been in a long time. I am generally optimistic about the potential of American democracy to be continuously perfected in service of the greater good, but these articles really highlight how our electoral systems and legislative process are being manipulated for pure evil as well. I feel particularly sad and frightened to think about what Alabama’s recent experience of pre-Civil Rights era black political power portends for the rest of the nation.
Better informed on this state of affairs, I have thought very hard about what different kinds of action I could take. Even in multiple discussions with family and friends, nothing we came up with seemed like it would have a meaningful impact on the problem, which fundamentally is about the distribution of power and privilege.
But then, this afternoon, my good friend and Executive Director of CUNY’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, Kevin Nadal, challenged me. No, not to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (which has raised a record $42 million over the past week).
He challenged me to the #KnowYourPrivilegeChallenge. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because it just started today!
In it, Kevin names three privileges that he has in his life, and then he names three organizations that address that privilege, to which he has made a donation.
What I loved about Kevin’s #KnowYourPrivilegeChallenge video is that it opened up a frame for positive action (addressing and acting on your privilege), and a systematic way of addressing it (three donations, a “multi-pronged approach”).
As a white American woman from an upper middle class background with lots of fancy education, I have a many, many privileges to be grateful for. And I am.
In these days of Ferguson, in order to harness my privileges in service of a world that I aspire to live in, I’ve made donations to three organizations that are working systemically to change the status quo.
PowerPAC+, so that more people of color and women have political power and that social justice champions are elected to positions of elected authority in the places that need it most.
YWCA of NYC, so that young girls of all backgrounds have access to the kind of positive development opportunities that I had as a kid.
Bunker Hill Community College, so that all people, regardless of income or nationality, have access to the kind of education that allows us to become our best selves.
We all have our own ways of acting, and I am privileged even to be able to make these donations (thanks for the challenge, Kevin!). It is my hope that the money will help these organizations — more expert than I in each of their own interventions — keep doing what they are doing to achieve peace and justice in this country.
But as the saying goes “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Please consider yourself challenged to consider your own privileges, and invited to act in service of a more just world, in whatever way you see fit.
Reminders #57 - 10,042 why it’s time to establish my own studio space.
These pictures are of Fabrica Behring, an old chocolate factory turned art studio complex in the Santo Cristo neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. Talented artist Vivian Cacurri was our host and guide through this building of secrets.
Vivian Caccuri’s work intertwines sound recordings, the public space, voice, and imagination through performances, objects and installations. Since 2008 she is dedicated to investigating listening and sound as means and form to bring together isolated spaces, communities and consciousnesses.
One of her pieces that I found most interesting is the “caminhada silenciosa" or "silent walk." Vivian curates a day of listening for a set of friends, researched through her own intrepid explorations of interesting soundscapes across the city. The day is a silent experience until dinner, when the adventurers discuss what they heard. I found this to be a profoundly interesting and mindful way of reconnecting to the present moment. Maybe I’ll try a version of it tomorrow as I walk around …
Today’s travels in Rio brought us to the Vidigal community, kindly hosted by Pedro Henrique de Cristo and Caroline Shannon de Cristo of +D Studio.
We were visiting Parque Sitie, a site that they and others in this favela have been transforming over the past few years from a dumping site to a community park, discussion forum, ecological center, and reliable staircase down the hill.
When the two moved to the favela about two years ago, they started looking for ways that they could help to improve community life. Their relationships with neighbors developed into a very far-reaching and systems-focused plan to improve infrastructure, promote community and individual land ownership, transform education, and conserve the environment.
They are among the rare few who have found a meaningful way to combine the contextual experiences and needs of their neighbors with their expertise in planning, architecture, and public policy. Very excited to see how their work evolves!
Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet may demonstrate why good process could trump final outcomes in public decision-making.
For anybody who cares about a healthy Internet or a healthy democracy, Brazil is offering some really important, live examples.
Immediately post-World Cup, that may not be the lede one would expect to read, but it is true. (As many others have pointed out, this is a country of complicated and interesting political tensions.)
I spent time last week in the country’s capital, Brasilia, learning about the recently-enacted Marco Civil da Internet from representatives in the Presidency, the Ministries of Justice and Culture, and the state telecommunications regulator (ANATEL). These discussions – and many others with stakeholders from civil society, telecommunications, and the citizenry – are part of a three-week study tour hosted by ITS Rio, whose staff shepherded the bill and thus have a unique perspective on how this law came to fruition.
The Marco Civil is civil legislation that articulates important elements of how the country will regulate privacy, freedom of expression, net neutrality, and a host of other Internet and society issues.
The substance of the law emerged from colleagues at the Center for Technology and Society of the Law School at the Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio who had been thinking for some time about how to respond to the country’s only (and inappropriately targeted) legislation about the Internet, which focused on cyber crime. The country’s former President Lula was also developing an interest in these issues, perhaps due to widespread pressure from Brazilian civil society, and the Ministry of Justice was asked to launch a public consultation about the issue.
In addition to a set of town hall meetings around the country, this government-civil society collaborative deployed a tool unprecedented in Brazilian lawmaking, but appropriate for the topic: an online platform for interested parties to submit their comments, suggestions, ideas, and concerns. The response from interested parties was significant, and over the course of the next few years, the country managed to pass Internet legislation that is globally viewed as a kind of gold standard.
Since I care about everyday people having greater ownership over the public decisions that affect their lives, I was curious to understand what impact this online public engagement actually had: what about the bill might have been different had the public not participated so robustly?
I asked our government discussants this question and their answer was “no question, it was totally different.” They said that debates in Congress actually shifted on multiple occasions due to the external inputs that this process channeled.
This was due in part to the high rate of participation among academics, tech elite, and civil society actors who had direct expertise in the technical and political issues under discussion, and also because the organizing team within the government accepted every invitation to debate the merits of the legislation, no matter whom their hosts.
Like any multi-year legislative process, the Marco Civil encountered challenges – not the least of which were the “Snowden revelations,” which brought the bill to the forefront as a potential response by the Brazilian government, but also threatened to pollute its contents with politically-driven provisions that would ultimately be bad for the Internet.
The final law was approved in April of this year, but many important issues still need to be clarified. Brazil’s definition of net neutrality and guidelines for which agency will oversee its implementation remain unspecified. The retention of data (for what purposes, on what grounds, and with what mechanisms) and key aspects of copyright law also need to be clarified. With elections upcoming, the country waits to see how these major, complicated legal issues will be resolved.
What strikes me most about this case is not actually what it accomplished – there is widespread acknowledgment that the Marco Civil is incomplete – but rather the process by which it was developed.
We heard time and again that this inclusive, responsive, transparent, and digital process was just as important, if not more important, than the outcomes. We also heard widespread desire to repurpose the same process on other policy issues.
It is likely because this particular set of internet and society issues is embedded with a particular set of values about openness, sharing, and collaboration, that a public governance process that was deliberately and digitally consultative emerged. My colleague Primavera De Filippi observed that this process was probably the best calibrated it could have been for the people who most care about this issue (let’s call them political tech geeks). Process matched subject, values, and participants in a very elegant and complete manner.
Skeptics might ask: if we were to debate agricultural issues, would an online platform be the best way to capture the opinions of the people who most know and care about that issue? And should we design our participatory platforms for those with the highest of stakes in the issues? I am not convinced that an online platform is necessarily the best tool for soliciting public opinion on public problems (internet penetration in Brazil is about 67 percent), nor that we should design participation mechanisms to suit the people who are most likely to engage.
However, I have come away with the opinion that our American governing context is overly attached to our issues. There are no “wins” without issue advancement (see: Congressional blockage). Here in Brazil, a “win” has been reframed in this instance to balance participatory process with issue advancement, highlighting the role of public servants as masters of good process, not simply issue advocacy.
In the United States, public trust in governance is at record lows – and I have observed through recent research that Americans are barely able to even perceive the presence and resources of government in their lives, even though they benefit from it multiple times per day. If our mechanisms for public problem-solving looked more like that of the Marco CiviI, might we more meaningfully utilize our opportunities to influence policy?
I am reminded this week that an open society should not just enforce issues such as net neutrality and open data – although those are ever more important – but should credibly use open practices for everyday people and for public officials to jointly shape legislation in the public interest. The vibrance of Brazil’s Internet is still an open question, but we can all learn from a process that was credibly participatory.
About ITS Rio
The mission of the Institute for Technology & Society (ITS) is to ensure that Brazil responds creatively and appropriately to the opportunities provided by technology in the digital age, and that the potential benefits are broadly shared across society. Through its own research and in partnership with other institutions, ITS analyzes the legal, social, economic and cultural dimensions of technology and advocates for public policies and private practices which protect privacy, freedom of expression and access to knowledge. The Institute also offers innovative education, training and capacity development to individuals and institutions to enable them to understand the promises and challenges of new technology. Last, not least, ITS aims to strengthen the voice of Brazil, Latin America and the Global South in international debates on technology and its regulation.