I have been extraordinarily privileged in past few weeks to have been exposed to two powerful examples of how it is possible to listen beyond words – to hear, instead of simply the message of the vocalised words, the intention and heart of the person and group speaking these words.
In the first instance, the experience of learning to listen beyond words came as the result of a somewhat random, but very fortuitous decision to ask Sonya Rademeyer1 to participate in the second in the series of the Africa Voices Dialogues2 being held with peers and colleagues across the African continent. We asked Sonya to use her specific gift for interpretive art to create a visual reflection of the dialogue, based on the sonic melodies of the conversation. The dialogue, hosted by Ghana, was a discussion of how the concepts of Inclusive and Collective Leadership are experienced by educators on the continent. One of the challenges that we have been grappling with as we organise these dialogues is the sense of striving to find a common space of belonging for African learners and educators, and create the opportunity to see, hear and love each other’s stories, while simultaneously contending with the wide diversity of languages on the continent. This made it feel appropriate to ask Sonya, who is exploring the concept of communication from a different angle in her collaborative “Sonic Re-Dress3 ” project, to assist us to find ways to see meaning beyond words in the session.
Sonya is a sonic interpretative artist. When creating an artwork, she listens for the tone, frequency and inflections of sound in her environment, sensing the flow of meaning behind the literal words, and translating this through the medium of drawing to capture the spirit and essence of a conversation. In this instance, Sonya’s reflection back to the participants in the Dialogue series was of their own generative flow of conversation – and what struck me as truly remarkable was how powerful the impact of this was. Many of the participants spoke of this moment of seeing their words and thoughts visually reflected back to them as being deeply moving, and quite profoundly impactful – that it gave them a sense of belonging, of being “woven into the conversation”. Sonya herself spoke of the sense of connectivity that she felt as she drew – how voices merged and led into one another, differing in their energy and their intensity, but seeming inextricably linked. The resulting picture feels like a reflection of the underlying “Nia”, or spirit of what we are hoping to facilitate through the dialogues – an interwoven mycelium of connections, care and belonging for educators and learners across the continent.
The second experience occurred during a workshop on Community Based Learning Ecosystems, also hosted by Africa Voices Dialogue Series. The workshop, which shared the exquisite approach to creating belonging used by the Tamkeen Community Foundation for Human Development4 in Morocco, was delivered by Karima Kadaoui, the co-founder and Executive President of Tamkeen, and Tamkeen’s research and systems partner, Dr Louis Klein, Dean of the European School of Governance and Secretary General of the International Federation for Systems Research.
During the workshop, Fatima Achdid, one of Tamkeen’s community-based co-ordinators from the Hay Zouitina Community, shared her experience of becoming part of a living, breathing, empowered community. Fatima speaks no English, nor any French – she is only able to communicate in Arabic. On the call were well over 60 people from widely diverse backgrounds and global geographies. Despite the fact that Fatima was understood by only a small contingent of the attendees, and that her words had to be imperfectly translated for the rest of us, we were held enthralled by her voice and the meaning of what she was communicating. She managed, with her body language, her eyes, and her passion, to communicate exactly what she intended – her huge sense of love and belonging within her community. She managed to communicate past the confines of her language and her words, reaching directly from her heart to ours.
Sight, hearing, sound, touch – these are wonderful physical gifts that we have been given for the interpretation of our world – and yet sometimes they get in our way. We develop a complacency about our sensory organs, thinking that it is our eyes, our ears that interpret our environment, whereas in truth they are really only the organs that we use to acquire information about our environment. Our true sensory organs are in fact our hearts, our brains, and that deeper part of ourselves that we might want to think of as our soul. It is occasionally useful to set aside our usual modes of sensing incoming information in order to reach into these deeper spaces of listening and perceiving.
Otto Scharmer and his team at the Presencing Institute5 have captured this concept well. Through ULab, the practical training arm and embodiment of the principles of Theory U, we are invited to open up to deeper modes and spaces of listening, to move beyond what Theory U terms Level 1 listening (Downloading – or listening from the confines of what we think we already know, hearing only what fits in with our existing assumptions) and Level 2 listening (Factual – listening simply to the words as they are spoken and hearing them at face value), and onwards into Level 3 listening (Empathetic listening, which allows the borders of our insight to become permeable to the deeper message and emotion underlying the words), and finally into Level 4 listening (Generative listening – listening for what it is that lies beyond our current experience and reality, to that which is wishing to emerge).
As I work my own way through my ULab journey with co-voyagers and the faculty of the Presencing institute, I hope to be able to share some of my practical discoveries and insights with you, and invite you into joint experiences of this model. For those who are interested to explore the deeper experience, I highly recommend that you register for the next ULab training with the Presencing Institute (https://www.presencing.org/uacademy).
- Sonya Rademeyer : http://www.sonya-rademeyer.com/
- Africa Voices Dialogues : https://talenttalks.net/africa-speaks/
- Sonic Re-Dress : https://www.sonic-redress.com/
- Tamkeen Community Foundation for Human Development : https://ma.linkedin.com/company/tamkeen-community-foundation-for-human-development
- Presencing Institute : https://www.presencing.org/
There are two downloadable files available: