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Hearing the difference: new strategies for listening in contemporary politics

Dr Emily Beausoleil, Massey University

Posted: Thu, 3 Nov 2016

One of the cornerstones of modern democracies is the right to speak, but rarely do we ask the inverse and essential question of how to listen.  What are the conditions and practices of good listening, and what are the challenges that make it so difficult? More importantly, what might encourage listening in political life when it is required but sorely lacking? Particularly in conditions of inequality and across profound social differences, the capacity to listen to the voices democracy gathers cannot be assumed, but must be actively fostered. 

Dr Emily Beausoleil, a Lecturer of Politics at Massey University, has been awarded a Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant to look at how people listen, and how to make listening easier.  The project will draw upon interdisciplinary expertise from practitioners in therapy, education, performance and conflict mediation, four fields where listening comprises an essential skill and yet are currently written out of political theorising. The expertise of these “master listeners” will be a source of information, but also partners in the study. The first part of the project will observe these experts as they work, then bring them together to share their listening and communicating strategies, and explore how these might be brought to bear on the design of forms of public engagement regarding difficult political issues.

With new strategies for listening in place, the project’s next phase is to connect this expertise to organisations already actively working across the country to stimulate and deepen conversation among the general public about socio-economic inequality. Working in community, it will tailor recommendations to the particular challenges and opportunities of engaging publics and politicians about this political issue, running and evaluating these novel designs of public engagement.

With socioeconomic inequality growing in New Zealand faster than other OECD countries, the need to listen to experiences and claims from the margins has never been greater. This interdisciplinary and experimental approach to the question of listening can shed light on how we can achieve this crucial dimension of democratc politics. When academic and practical worlds often work in isolation, this project aims to ‘close the loop’ of research so that practical sectors inform current democratic scholarship, while research recommendations can find their way back into practical application where they are needed most. These findings would ideally serve current efforts to stimulate and deepen civic dialogue in New Zealand about socioeconomic inequality, but they might also show us how, in more general terms, we might facilitate listening in unequal societies.

Total Funding: $300,000 (excl. GST) over 3 years

Researchers: Dr Emily Beausoleil, School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University, Private Bag 11222, Palmerston North 4442