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Voice & Listening: Techniques for a Political Life


Image: Listening to Ourselves by Nina Photography


Gaylene shared ideas on the fundamental skill of listening at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research symposium on March 25th.


Voice & Listening: Techniques for a Political Life was organised as a flipped conference, a cross-disciplinary debate on the politics, ethics and practice of voice and listening.

Are we currently witnessing and experiencing a ‘crisis of voice’? Who has a voice? Whose voices are heard, and meaningfully engaged with, and whose are not? What does it mean to listen to others, or, conversely, to ignore them?


They posed these questions with the acute awareness that the current global Covid-19 pandemic has not only exposed the fragility of human life to a dramatic extent, but has simultaneously revealed the ecological, societal and political dysfunctions that maintain and reproduce our unequal world.


Gaylene did the Listening to Yourself exercise as a guest blog for the event. Here is her conversation with herself:


So Gaylene, what would you like to talk about today?


I want to talk about talking to myself.


Ok what about talking to yourself would you like to talk about?


I’m curious about its power. You see, I live alone so during lockdown I’ve been talking to myself a lot more than usual.


So you talk to yourself. Why do you do that do you think?


Because I’m fascinating! Joke. In fact, sometimes it’s simply to practice out loud. I might rehearse something or vent to release tension. If I need cheering up, I might tell myself a joke or talk myself through a tricky task. I imagine many people do this but there’s a lot of shame attached. How does the old joke go? Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness? In fact it can be the opposite. Mindfulness experts might say it’s our Observing Self paying attention to our Experiencing Self. Done with intention, talking to yourself can be pretty healthy.


With intention?


Like giving yourself a good talking to. We don’t pay enough attention to our internalized voices. We all have them and they run commentary whether we like it or not. They can be our harshest critic and, if unchecked, can leak out when talking to others. We hear ourselves say something cruel and think “Why did I say that?” An intentional conversation is about taking control of that internal voice, making it work with us rather than against.


So how do we do that?


I’ve recently designed an online audio-visual project called Listening to Ourselves to help. The project consists of a series of portraits taken by Nina Robinson featuring portraits of people seemingly in conversation with themselves. Two audio pieces, produced by ANNN, sit alongside with suggestions of how they might help us have a more compassionate conversation with ourselves. One of the audio works is a recording of me doing just that.


What are the suggestions?


They’re based on good interview and coaching techniques. The key is to hold the conversation lightly and with curiosity as if you’re interviewing a stranger you don’t know and to ask questions that help you follow the thread, like you’re doing with me now. It’s best not to rehearse and it’s good to have the conversation out loud or write it down like this.


Why out loud?


Because talking aloud helps us stick to a thought path. Internal chatter can lead to rumination and we can avoid areas that might be fertile to venture into.


Have you ended up anywhere fertile?


One time I went on a Listening to Myself walk, plugged in my headphones started the soundscape and found myself exploring a dream I had had the previous night. I remembered details that I had forgotten and, by the end of the conversation, had arrived at quite a profound interpretation. That new awareness led me to make some different decisions that day.


Spooky. So this is like therapy?


No. This is certainly not a replacement for specialist support. But listening to yourself like this can help build self-awareness. It’s an act of self-befriending. We can find this idea nerve-wracking, as if we’re afraid of who we might encounter. However if we come at this conversation with compassion, I reckon we’ll simply discover we’re quite ok …and quite fascinating.


So what draws you to this practice?


Believe it or not, a hope for social equity. The questions posed by this conference (Are we currently witnessing and experiencing a ‘crisis of voice’? Who has a voice? Whose voices are heard, and meaningfully engaged with, and whose are not?) suggest that the persons talking and listening are separate entities. The questions also reveal that there is a power balance between who is talking and who is listening. Communication is powerful because it forms social bonds. However a fundamental, yet often overlooked, aspect is how we communicate with ourselves.


Voices and tones of voices are passed down to and through us. How we are talked to is how we end up talking to ourselves and then to others. The cycle repeats ad infinitum. Our listening abilities are also powerful. Most of us are not taught to be good listeners. We might listen for a while before turning the conversation back onto ourselves. In that moment the power shifts.


In order to interrupt and refresh this cycle we must first examine our inherited internal voices. Can we trust them? Do we agree with their perspectives? Is this a voice we want to represent us? If intentionally crafted, these voices can become our greatest ally.


Simultaneously we must learn to listen well. By practicing with ourselves, allowing ourselves to finish a thought guided by a kind, non-judgmental curiosity, we might collectively begin to shift the deep-rooted power imbalances that exist between individuals and groups.


Got it. Is there anything else you would like to add?


I don’t think so. I seem to have reached the end of this thought, thank you. Now what do you want to talk about?