Listening in the Slow Lane is not just about receiving information, but a way of sharing power with the people who suffer the problems our quick-fixes create. To change things, we need to see our listening theater for what it is. Because whether at home, groups, or in government, we are experts at pretending to trust those around us. Instead of having our hands forced by painful crisis, we can acknowledge our shortcomings, and start listening.
I suspect that you are a bit like me, when it comes to listening. You agree that it is vital to our relationships, and that it is vital to improve things in an inclusive and respectful manner. I am fortunate to have seen great listeners in action: first observing Yuraima, an architect in service of the people of Catuche, the slum in Caracas (see Story #8); later seeing many activists, movements, and even governments like Sefton (see Story #10) at work. So, you could say that I know what good listening looks like. And yet, like most of us, when I practice listening I keep falling back into what experts call 'tokenism', or pretending to listen. It is too easy to act like I am listening. My Saturday Question, addressing my daughters, was a listening theater (see Story #9). A thinly veiled game of power. In that story, I came to the following conclusion:
"Listening comes down to this: do you trust others to know what is right, or do you believe that you are superior in your vision or ability to make that judgement?".
The Listening Theater
All our stories start in the same place. Powerful people or institutions engage in the theater of listening. It is easy to do, simply a matter of patience: wait to hear what others have to say. Before the citizen-led Consorcio Catuche was instituted, the government of Caracas pretended to listen to what citizens needed, going on to build what it wanted. Similarly, Sefton did a lot of 'listening' in the form of the generic public consultation efforts, sending out a survey or asking people for feedback on a planned project. And Pentonville Prison, just like the UK Probation Services (see Story #1), asked people about their rehabilitation needs under conditions that made it impossible to speak out the truth. Like my Saturday Question, these activities may look like listening on the surface, but are ineffective in creating change.
There is an interesting parallel here to what psychologists found out about human communications. What we say is just 40% of the message we convey, the rest comes in the form of gestures, posture, expressions, and context. Those are called non-verbal communication. They observed, that it is easy to pretend in what we say, but much harder to pretend in what, for example, our body language communicates as we say it. In listening, the same holds true. There is only so much pretending we can do without really meaning it. And really meaning it, when it comes to listening, comes down to unconditional trust. This, it turns out, is the really hard nut to crack.
A Good Crisis Builds Trust
At home, I found it very difficult to ask an honest question without resolving the trust issue. Do I trust my daughters to know what is right? What if they choose to do none of the activities that I find meaningful? It wasn't until I let go of my plans for their future, that I could really ask an honest question. That's definitely like opening a can of worms: Would they have a future if I let go? What would others think? How would I be judged by family and friends? Would they embarrass me by not adhering to my definition of success in life? Would they suffer painful setbacks in life? My desire to protect them by controlling them, directly contradicted my even greater desire to empower them, to give them agency over their lives. Could I unconditionally love my children, without unconditionally trusting them? Unlearning my instincts and justifications for being the 'benevolent dictator' in their lives didn't come easy. My personal struggles are really no different from what defines the stories in this book. People and institutions in power come around to trusting people who aren't supposed to be competent: our children and youth, women, the poor, the uneducated, offenders and ex-offenders, non-experts, ordinary citizens.
Choosing trust is very counter-intuitive. It rarely stands a chance against the predictability of power and dominance.
We are taught that great leaders are made in a crisis. They look after us, they place all the right bets, rally the troops, and quickly issue instructions. Leading this way also feels like a natural act of self-preservation: if I am in charge, I have control over my fate. Choosing the path of power and dominance is particularly attractive when we feel cornered into believing that we need a simple, quick fix that will free us. Think about it: Sefton had to cut 50% of its spending right away, Pentonville Prison was drowning in violence, Catuche required urgent infrastructure upgrades. In these situations, our instincts tell us that listening is just a slow way to get a lot of confusing input, when all you want is a simple fix.
Finding the 'Always' in the Crisis
Opting for trust seems counter-intuitive in moments of crisis, but in our stories, people have chosen to do it. Why? They realized that they had come to the end of the line. Their quick-fixes were becoming less and less effective at getting them out of trouble. And so, they had to take a longer view: The turning points in our stories may seem like moments of acute crisis, a shock to the system, but they really were about chronic problems. Pentonville had been spiraling out of control for a long time. Sefton had been declining for decades. Catuche had been sidelined for generations. Waste pickers in Peru had been persecuted and stigmatized for generations. And whilst my daughters were young, I faced the same frustration of going nowhere every Saturday for years.
Stepping back, reassessing, and arriving at a new perspective, is the kind of reframing I wrote about in my takeaways on social imagination in Chapter 1. Reframing allows us to step out of the hamster wheel of hobbling from crisis to crisis, the moment when we see the bigger picture. The people of Catuche realized that they didn't urgently need infrastructure, but that they always urgently needed infrastructure and never got what they needed. Sefton realized that it didn't urgently need to cut its budget, but that it was always so vulnerable to outside forces that it couldn't reliably serve its people. And Kevin Reilly, the governor of Pentonville Prison realized that for 150 years leaders like himself always implemented urgent fixes that in the end failed help ex-offenders rehabilitate and return to society.
Permanent, Open, Patient, Generous, Giving
Earlier, I described the Fast Lane as a perpetual cycle of solving one problem by creating another (see Story #4). This chapter has shown how this perpetuates the 'always' in our crisis, since the quick-fixes only ever work for some of us. The rest, tied up in the problems we create, become invisible and silent. It is a vicious and inhuman circle. People become the inconvenient truth we look away from, easing our way by applying some form of stigma to them. With time, our stigmatization rubs off on them, turning injustice into the kind of shame that silenced Eduardo, the waste-picker, as a child (see Story #5). They become too exhausted to make themselves heard. You can see where this is going: The more we fix things the Fast Lane way, the more we feed the downward spiral for those left behind, driving a deeper wedge between us and them. The numbers of those left behind can be staggering: 2% of Peruvians were waste pickers, like Eduardo. 70% of the population of Venezuela experienced discrimination like the people of Catuche. 25% of children grow up impoverished in Sefton, 40% do in Spain.
Listening in the Slow Lane, shifts real power to people who were always excluded from the quick-fixes, tied up in their side-effects.
Where the Fast Lane intuitively turns away from the problems it creates, the Slow Lane steps back to see a crisis as the symptom of a more profound problem. Stepping out of the quick-fix logic allows us to face our real demon: can we unconditionally trust others, even when the stakes are high? Writing about Catuche, I summarized the listening practiced by Yuraima, Cesar, Father Joseito and Doris as being 'permanent, open, patient, generous and giving'. Unconditional trust is beautiful, joyful. Success isn't always a newsworthy triumph, as in the case of Albina's movement over Peru's unjust, and corrupt waste management system. In Catuche, listening led to a triumph of dignity over abuse.
Trust Can be the New Black
Will it always take a crisis to push us into trusting others unconditionally, and listen properly? I think there are two ways to look at this question. The first is a simple 'no', we can promote, work and live by the Slow Lane Principles because they are right because they will prevent us from experiencing extreme crisis, and because they will give us joy. The other way is to remember that the slow-moving stresses, the underlying 'always' problems that create painful crisis, are already in our lives. Covid-19 was a reminder of how a shock to the system quickly revealed the injustices that our fast ways have nurtured for too long. This is what people mean when they talk about systemic change: to not shy away from listening to where it hurts most. Here are some ideas on what we can do, right now.
Let's start with ourselves. Each one of us can do more, every day, to break out of our own hamster wheels. Take a moment every time you find yourself justifying that it is ok to put yourself above others – be they your loved ones or otherwise. Don't wait for a crisis, but take courage from knowing that unconditionally trusting others will let them thrive, and develop their capabilities. Doing this is hard, especially in a Fast Lane world that promises salvation and safety to those who dominate others. I had internalized this promise so much, that it undermined what I really wanted for my daughters. Once we see this, the next steps become easier, giving us a compass to unlearn false promises, and practice our new behaviors. As we change our ways, we will inspire others to do the same.
We can self-organize to be listened to. In Catuche, people organized and created a formal consortium to be heard and gain control. Recyclers in Peru did something similar. Mark Johnson was an offender and prisoner before he founded User Voice to give people in the probation system a voice. These groups demanded a say, and provided authorities, but also the wider society, with guidance on how they expected to be heard and treated with dignity. People like Yuraima and Albina backed these efforts by offering unconditional, long-term support. Here, too, change started from within: As supporters, they had to unlearn their own professional expectations of what success would look like. Instead of being the 'traveling experts' designing technically superior solutions, they put themselves at the service of communities who had never wielded power. In doing so, over decades, they became a community asset in their own right, providing permanence and continuity in highly volatile environments.
Governments can listen. Sefton has shown how even powerful government institutions can create an environment of trust. This isn't new. It is at the heart of what is called 'Asset-Based Community Development' (ABCD), a sustainable development methodology developed in the early 1990's. With ABCD, communities invest in the abilities of people, instead of seeing them as problems. Sefton, in the past, saw citizens as needs to be serviced. Now, Sefton sees citizens for their ability to contribute. Governments can change, but this transition is hard for them, too. We can help this change along by rewarding progress and introducing standards to avoid the 'listening theater'. We should focus on two aspects here. The first is to give enough space and time to people to find their voice. A good example of how this should work is the way User Voice spends months preparing prisoners in Pentonville Prison for their meeting with the governor. The second is to give people as much power as possible over decisions that affect their lives. This, can play out differently in different contexts. Prisoners are unlikely to run their prison, but formally considering their proposals is going a long way. In Sefton, users of supported living services took charge of developing their vision for independent living, collaborating with community organizations. Sefton then helped these organizations win the $22 million supported living service contract from corporate suppliers.
Sticking Around is the Secret to Unconditional Love
In my conclusions about social imagination, I wrote that it is a practice that brings incredible joy. Listening is no different, especially when freed from our fears about trusting others. I may be biased as a father here, but I see so much in common between the unconditional love I am trying to extend to my daughters, and the practice of unconditional trust in listening. What I mean by this is not just sharing power, but the permanence and abundance of availability. I am not going anywhere. We have to do more, each to our ability, to support people and institutions not just to trust and listen, but to stick around for a lifetime.
Staying for as long as it takes is the very foundation of the Slow Lane.
This brings Chapter 2 to a close. Up next, we will be facing the zombies. Social change is full of bumps in the road, but what are these bumps really made of? What are the broken systems that keep setting us back, and can they be fixed? In my next post, I will return to Mark Johnson to follow him and his organization through their painful experience of trying to support probation reform in the UK.