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Reflection on Brexit listening project – what does listening do?

The other day I went to Harwich (approx. 1.5 hour train ride from London) in Essex where Leave vote was in majority to join the listening project.

We asked people on the street questions; what does the result mean to you? What is your vision for the UK’s future? What is the message to the new leadership? There was no exchange of opinions, no debate, no agreement or disagreement, but just listening and acknowledging. I’m from London and the town looked overwhelmingly ‘Leave’. Before we hit the road, I wasn’t sure how I would take this and was afraid that listening to the people might give me lots of pain from disagreement in some views and values.

But it was strange. I was emotional at times but became strangely calmer throughout the interview.

I used to think just listening (not exchanging opinions or debating) was a one-way act (from speakers to listeners). But from that day’s experience, I noticed listening is a reciprocal act. One of the really powerful thing I was given was that listening to them and trying to understand or imagining what would be really like for them and what’s there beneath those words rebuilt and strengthened a sense of connection that I long for and have been afraid of losing lately.

A couple of days after the listening experience, I was still reflecting on the experience. This time my thought was with the questions we asked and people’s reaction. To the question of ‘what is your vision for the UK’s future?’ some people said to me, ‘I don’t have a vision’. One person obviously looked to me too disillusioned to hold a vision for the UK. Others’ reaction seemed to say a ‘vision’ sounded too grand and they don’t have such a thing. What would be alternatives if a word ‘vision’ came across alienating in any way? I pondered on. How about; The UK’s future: what matters to you? /What do you care about? /What is important to you?

I thought these phrases may sound more personal but more direct and closer to them and may make them feel what they say more ‘own’. Then I talked about this with my friend who was there at the listening. We talked about the context of how we introduce questions to people, our intention, how we are trying to find common ground by weaving stories together, responsibility of doing this and possible implications despite the intention, etc.

This reflection on how to frame the questions also highlighted the other side again – I originally only thought of the effect that has on the speakers. But it made me understand more of what is behind my intention, my personal reasons of doing the listening. These questions on personal level (what matters to you, etc) are what I would really like to know and the level I want to engage in. I was so desperate to get through what we are experiencing. I felt that we are drawing the picture of division – extreme dichotomy of A or B. I was feeling this very physical mass was grabbing us, and I really wanted to survive through and out of this. I didn’t want to be swept away. I wanted to feel humanity. I really wanted to feel we are human again.

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