To listen, to learn


Here we are 7 weeks since the EU Referendum. The negative consequences foreseen by the majority of economists are already coming to pass. Interest rates have been cut to a record low of 0.25%, and manufacturing output and the value of the pound are dropping. Jobs are being cut in banks, construction sites and factories (although unsurprisingly MacDonalds is bucking the trend by taking on 5,000 more people). I’ve heard stories of several research projects with European collaborators already faltering, dropping their UK partners. If Brexit goes ahead, and that seems a big if, the Civil Service will be so occupied that all other schemes will have to be scrapped or reduced, regions such as Wales and Cornwall will no longer benefit from EU grants, farmers will receive fewer subsidies, and if ‘free movement of people’ is ended the UK will no longer reap the net benefits of migration. This is not to mention the longer term impacts Brexit will have on the environment, our food security, our laws and our rights, which will be harmful to the most vulnerable people, as well as the impacts on other EU countries, and developing countries reliant on aid from UK amongst others. I could go on.

So, why have so many people voted, and why do they continue to campaign, against their best interests?  How can we best understand this?

We could understand the underlying issues by reading the pithy summaries of journalists, such as Paul Mason, who explains by destroying organised labour, neoliberalism destroyed the labour movement’s cultural hold on ex-industrial communities, allowing the politics of racial/national identity to take over from class solidarity”.

Equally, we could make a greater effort to listen. I can’t count the number of articles or commentators appealing to Remainers as ‘out of touch metropolitan elites’ to listen more, especially in traditional Labour territories in the North. In a few short weeks, this is starting to feel like a tedious platitude. Actually, the call to listen is not new, and many organisations such as universities and charities have done a lot of listening over the past few years. (Examples given at the end.) Perhaps a key problem is that the voices of ill-served and vulnerable communities are heard but forgotten and ignored. So, what is going wrong?

Although I support the call to listen more, and in general strongly support an attitude of responsive listening, I want to question the motives and effectiveness of these calls to listen, and then consider methods that might be used to reach a deeper understanding. 


These are my questions, and some tentative answers.

When we listen, what do we believe as genuine?

How much of what is said is ‘lies repeated so often they become truth’, the result of years of UKIP and right-wing media propaganda? The way that the media can overwhelm genuine views built up from experience is an absolutely key point, but has been explored in other places, so I’ll just leave that question there.

Who should be listened to?

In terms of Leave voters, the majority were in rural areas substantially in the South and not so much the traditional Labour areas. They were also more often outright homeowners, compared to more Remainers living with high rents and mortgage payments. Yes, it’s important to listen to people experiencing poverty and, even more important, to do something about the extreme inequality in the UK. Perhaps a large proportion of the Leave vote was motivated by a combination of growing poverty (wage depression etc) and a belief that the EU is a bastion of neo-liberalism promoting inequality. (For example, people concerned that the free movement of people enables exploitation of low-paid migrant workers.) But also, there must be other stories to be heard, other reasons for listening.

Also, there are others who deserve to be heard, not just Leave voters: Young people who were not able to vote, Scottish and Northern Irish who did not vote for Brexit but will be very much affected, UK people who have lived in other EU countries for more than 15 years, anyone who is losing their EU Citizenship against their will, and everyone in other EU countries destabilised by this referendum.

Who is being asked to listen and who is best placed to do so?

Implied in the tone of these calls is that the onus to listen is on all those of us who are privileged to be literate and educated, which reflects back the assumption that Remain voters are all privileged elites, and in turn opens the floor to accusations of being patronising. This assumption of privilege conflates of urbanity and education with affluence and power, and is made by those who do have the privilege of platforms for their views. The great majority of us on the Remain side, however educated, expert or vocal, also feel we are not being listened to. Ironically, even Matthew Taylor, in his blogpost, feels that nobody gets him and that he won’t have any readers because we’re all in Tuscany for the whole of August, drinking chianti.

What will be done with what is heard?

Another implication in the calls is that listening involves an element of concession, even to demands that are unjust and harmful. This suggests that ‘we’ must listen and adapt to what people want because we are concerned with garnering voter opinion, as if we have some kind of influence over political policies. Not all Remainers have party political motives, and maybe this is not the best starting point for listening.

One positive outcome of listening more is to grow understanding of why people make certain decisions, about psychology, cultural values, and viral behaviours. For example, this piece on popular support for Brexit and Trump suggests that people opt for the irrational decision if they believe messages that it is the most fair. This piece at least suggests that we must listen because it should serve as a wake up call.

What effect is listening having, if it is happening?

I have heard many stories of Remainers engaging in online forums for Leave, UKIP and Britain First, and one or two having some success when explaining basic facts about political and economic processes in a non-judgemental way. I’ve heard that it has worked well to explain to Leave voters how and why they have been manipulated by the media, showing how this is not due to their stupidity but the power and lack of principle of the manipulators.

But generally, engagement appears to be difficult. Matthew Taylor reports that Leavers are telling him: “Don’t you get it? Leave voters knew all the consequences.” He says that “what is so clever about the Leavers’ world view is that to deny any of it means immediately being branded an out of touch elitist.” Although there were some post-Ref polls that suggested around 1.2-1.4 million Leavers regretted their vote, seemingly most are pretty positive about the result. In the social media battlegrounds, Leavers continue to tell Remainers to ‘shut up and put up’, to accuse them of being liars and alarmists, and insist that the economy still is, or will be, buoyant. Remainers are still reporting being abused and trolled, branded elitist, and feeling exhausted at trying to engage, whether this is online or face-to-face.

There are a few good articles, such as this one by Faisal Islam having visited Sunderland, which do combine listening with critical reflection. It’s not clear though if engagement is having a great deal of effect.

How much can we take Leavers’ post-vote confidence at face value?

Those who did express regret at voting Leave talked about feeling ashamed that they were duped, or that they had made a rash protest that may have harmful consequences. When people feel individually ashamed and in situations where there are clear moral codes held in common, shame can be more clearly defined and the emotion converted to guilt. Guilt can be dealt with more constructively than shame. When a large group of people are ashamed and in a situation with conflicting moral codes, this can be a significant factor in escalating conflict. Typical responses to shame are to divert blame, attack others, seek more influence, or withdraw.

I’m not suggesting that all of the 17.5 million Leave voters feel shame, and of course most would not own an emotion that is so…well…shameful, especially after the exhilaration of a win. It is most likely that the overriding effect is the phenomenon of feeling even more strongly confirmed in your decision after making it. It is easier to justify your decision than to change it. However, being confronted with the bewildered and hurt reaction of Remainers, their leaders’ confessions of lies, concerns expressed about the difficulty of rewriting thousands of laws and negotiating a good Brexit, the daily stories of negative impacts, including the horrendous rise in racist attacks, must surely be having a subconscious effect of collective shaming. The reaction to this shaming is likely to be cognitive dissonance, leading to denial of negative impacts and increased attacks on those with different views.

So, what would listening for deeper understanding involve?

Social research (e.g. by documentary filmmakers, charity workers, academics, artists or citizen campaigners) requires that the listener/researcher shifts consciously between at least three states, or determines to remain in one of these states when present with people.

The empathetic state:

  • Stepping inside another person’s shoes, using imagination to feel as they do, and seeking stimulus that will allow you to get an embodied experience of their life or dilemma. For example, visiting someone in their place, or asking them about critical incidents that gave strong emotions.
  • Asking for the story behind their views, to see how their values and anxieties arose from experience (like this Free Listening approach.)
  • Affirming the validity of their story by withholding judgement.
  • Beyond listening for the dominant messages, also observing behaviours and listening for implicit messages.

(Note that this is not a simple single state as it requires empathy through immersion and cognitive reflection acting in tandem.)

The conversational state:

  • Reasoning together. Joining as an equal player in a dialogue, perhaps starting by defining a common problem that you will try to solve together.
  • Offering your own views, distinguishing between what are one’s own deeply held values and what are borrowed ideas or ‘thought experiments’.
  • Showing willingness to embrace the other’s views when these are well-reasoned or offer new information.
  • Drawing out from an entrenched position by offering new scenarios, asking ‘what if…x or y happened?’
  • Attempting to bracket out or move beyond soundbites and attacks by focusing questions on new information, scenarios or solutions.

The analytical state:

  • Seeking to distinguish between the most deeply embedded values that arise from authentic experiences, and the more inauthentic received opinions from mainstream media and viral response in one’s ‘echo chamber’.
  • Appreciate and refer to valid data and ideas of experts.
  • Zooming out from the individual experience and looking at patterns, interrogating the data to see mass experiences.
  • Taking a systems-thinking or precautionary approach to consider the future implications and complexities around any behaviour or decision. (Referring to the bigger picture e.g. climate change in which immigration is part of the unfolding story.)
  • Acknowledging that there are others who have no voice, including consideration of future generations, other species, vulnerable people and people with ‘edge awareness’ (e.g. indigenous people).
  • Feeding back these insights into the conversation so that learning and problem-solving continues.

So, empathetic listening is important but it is just one step as part of a deep educative process where relationships are forged between researcher and people. This deepening process should aim not to exploit, to capture stories for content or for political success, but to help develop intellectual agency, critical awareness of power and media, and awareness of alternative means to thrive (such as regenerative economy).

In the comments, please feel free to add suggestions to ways of listening, and to resources and examples of listening-based research.

Some resources that can be used for engagement post-Referendum

An event #NoDust at Conway Hall on 5th Sept

Templates for holding Snackchat events

More in Common meetings

Examples of listening before the current call to listen:

Joseph Rowntree Foundation is one example of a charity that respectfully represents the experience of poverty in the UK.

A prescient extract from this 2014 report from British Future on ‘How to talk about immigration’:

“voters have been excluded from these decisions about what and who we are as a country. We may have moved past ‘we’re not allowed to talk about immigration’, but when we do talk about it, politicians still do not trust the public to say something sensible. Those trying to defend the benefits of immigration have been wary of engaging with the public at all on the issue, in the belief that opinion is too ‘toxic’. When they do, their approach has sometimes been actively harmful to their cause: telling someone ‘you’re wrong, here are the facts’ only alienates them further; suggesting that they’re a bit racist if they disagree does not win them over. Advocates of a ‘get tough’ approach to immigration have gone in a different direction but for similarly misguided reasons. While migration liberals don’t trust the public to talk about immigration without things turning nasty, their opponents don’t trust voters to handle the realities of trying to control it in the modern world. Instead they have offered them a tough target that has not been met and was never likely to be.”

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