‘‘…I thought to myself, well yes its fine, get a little British girl here, but what is it actually going to help? Who is going to hear it? And if you get people that show resistance against talking it will be because they think well what is it going to help?  Let us worry, nobody else is going to worry, you worry because you are doing this for your university or college or something and are going to bring people together or something but what is it going to help? Who is listening in the end? Nobody!’’    – Farmer from the Elandsrivier Valley,  Baaviaanskloof Mega-Reserve

To Listen (vb.) – to hear with intention… (Source: TheFreeDictionary.com)

Is there a ‘science’ behind listening? Perhaps more important to ask is whether there is a need for practicing listening in the science of social-ecological restoration?

Our academic arena is constantly developing an impressive artillery of efficiency-increasing tools, conceptual frameworks and advanced analytical assessment models but is there anything on the scientific roadmap which could offer people an avenue into profound engagement with the problem that they are facing? Can the simple art of listening provide such a path? After all, one would think that open communication, the generation of trust and shared understanding should be at the heart of any successful participatory management program.

Furthermore,while the paradigm of sustainable development is often heavily  aligned with reference to  ecological and economic thresholds; are we not  obliged to also focus attention on social development, especially when the environmental issues of today are determined more by the plethora of competing interests and diverse perspectives and values which define the problem context as opposed to only the technical dimensions of the challenge?

Currently, often despite the best of intent, many conservation /ecosystem management researchers and practitioners fall intentionally or unintentionally into a process which encourages management participation from landowners at a level defined by Pretty(1996)* as ‘Participation by Consultation’ whereby:

‘communities participate by being consulted or by answering questions, external agents define problems and information-gathering processes, and so control analysis.

 (We admit the PRESENCE network has fallen back into this way of doing many times as well!)

This type of ‘participatory consultation’ can often be identified  in the conservation opportunity studies which speak of landowners’ “willingness-to”-… and indicate the potential for co-management or collaboration to take place,with whom, in what context and to what extent. The preferred approach would be for researchers to begin executing Pretty’s (1996) ‘Co-Learning Participation’:  the difference between the two can be distinguished to a large degree by the amount of listening involved and, more significantly, the intent behind the researcher’s listening.

‘…Participation is seen as a right, not just the means to achieve project goals. The process involves interdisciplinary methodologies that seek multiple perspectives and make use of systematic and structured learning processes…’  (Pretty 1996)*

‘Seeking multiple perspectives’ is the critical component here as it manifests the intention behind offering a platform for the participants’ worldviews, values and opinions to be articulated. The researcher intentionally creates a space for the participant to be listened to and to explore their world within their interpretation of the question.-

Current approaches regularly see conservation scientists and practitioners acting as ‘fix-it’ mechanics whom tend to analyse a problem which has usually been defined by fellow scientists and then finding a solution – but how does one know if this solution has successfully resulted in empowerment and understanding? The alternative approach is to adopt the role of becoming more of a coach or  ‘midwife’ in using tools to allow new learning and knowledge to emerge (or be born)  and thus facilitate a better all-round and lasting understanding of the system – which includes one’s own understanding and that of all participants.

The Theory U developed by Otto Scharmer (2009) is a social technology which places listening at the core of any social change co-management or participatory engagement process. The Theory U was has recently been central to recent research designed to stimulate a co-initiation process among role players involved in the agricultural landscape of the Elandsrivier Valley.[See also:  It’s all about U: Process, Progress & Participation in Elandsrivier Valley]

The Theory behind the U process is that that the thinking of a community of people is distributed through networks of conversation; conversations are the living embodiment of social fields and they are an important starting point for improving social interaction. The methodology indicates that documenting experiences and perspectives of role players is imperative to begin the process. Relating an experience is one of the most important and influential factors in promoting effective understanding and learning. Through dialogue and narratives, the experience of one can become the knowledge of all, building a collective understanding – therefore sharing experiences can influence the behaviour of individuals towards a shared goal.

If we wish to achieve social change we face the challenge of helping role players see the world in a different light. It is about cultivating empathy. What this also involves is becoming aware of the largely unconscious, defensive measures we have to ensure the resilience of our worldview and belief systems such that  avoid privileging one type of knowledge and allowing ourselves the courage to loosen our grip on our own ideas.

We must intentionally leave space for change and multiple, diverse ownership in a process; and to listen to ourselves as we participate in conversation. This includes paying attention to the inner voice as we mentally contest an opinion or statement and to refrain from articulating that in dialogue to prevent a debate from occurring. Rather, Theory U advises that we practice listening without judgement and to allow ourselves to take in information with a curiosity and with a willingness to empathise and relate to another’s experience.  

Deep listening interviews were recently conducted with farmers in the Elandsrivier Valley (part of the Baviaanskloof Mega-Reserve) along with members of conservation related organisations; the intention behind this was to present the role players with a platform upon which to express their experiences, perspectives, emotions and opinions on the subject of land management. This was followed up by a workshop to identify a common intent and to encourage relationship building among role players based on listening and dialogue. The result wasthe generation of common perspectives and ideas for which steps could to be taken to achieve potential solutions in the region.

See also:  It’s all about U: Process, Progress & Participation in Elandsrivier Valley

Text: Vanessa Sheehan (Ed: Matthew Zylstra, Dieter Van den Broeck). Vanessa is an English student from the University of Birmingham. She recently completed her thesis field research on employing Theory U and the science/art of listening as part of the PRESENCE Network’s emerging efforts in the Elandsrivier Valley. This initiative is also affiliated with ECPTA’s stewardship programme – and would to acknowledge their support.
Pretty, J. N. (1996). Participatory Learning for Integrated Farming, Sustainable Agriculture Programme, International Institute for Environment and Development, London.
Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U – Leading from the Future as It Emerges: The Social Technology of Presencing. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.