Let’s talk about triggers…

Let’s talk about triggers…


Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com
Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com

I was delivering training in a not for profit RTO a couple of years ago. The learners in the small class were either refugees or migrants from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds. One day, as these people were returning from their lunch break, a lively conversation broke out during which people related stories of their school days and especially the naughty things they did as kids and the ways in which they were punished. The group was laughing and cheerful, except for one Cambodian lady. Unheard by the rest, she turned to me and said “I grew up under the Khmer Rouge. I didn’t go to school.”

I am no expert in Cambodian history but the little I do know about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, their persecution of academics, the starvations, the killing fields and all of the ghastly things that happened during this time in Cambodia tells me that not being able to go to school was only one problem that this lady and her loved ones would have faced at that time. Her one brief revelation to me that day pointed to a past that was steeped in the sort of privation, tragedy and trauma that a flabby middle class Aussie like me can only guess at*.

I quietly replied that I was aware that the Khmer Rouge had closed all places of learning and persecuted academics, and how difficult and terrible that must have been to live through. She nodded and then turned straight back into participating with the group at large. She didn’t want counselling, she wanted a moment of empathy and of acknowledgement of what she had lived through. This want arose spontaneously in a moment where a conversation had unexpectedly triggered a memory of something horrible.

But imagine this: you are facilitating a group discussion. Something arises in conversation which triggers a strong emotional reaction in one of the participants. They begin to cry, or shake, or become angry. I have had the rare experience where this has happened too. As the person facilitating the group what do you do? What strategies do you use to help that person, and then help the group who has witnessed it?

I am currently putting together some frameworks for facilitated discussions I plan to offer later this year. The material I am working with should be

interesting, even fun, but could also take people to a very deep emotional and imaginative level. The discussions will be about aspects of workplace culture and dynamics; given the frequency of bullying in Australia right now there is a chance that these discussions could trigger in some participants memories of being bullied.

I am definitely NOT aiming to run group therapy and my questions and choice of material will be chosen to direct people to thinking about things on an organisational and cultural level. Having said this, and acknowledging that I am using material that engages the feelings and imaginations as well as the intellect, I am assuming that people will be emotionally engaged (mostly in a good way, I think).

I am NOT worried that severe triggered episodes will happen often. Nor am I worried, per se, about my ability to cope with emotional responses if and when they do arise. I have a history of dealing with such episodes appropriately in the training and group facilitation that I have done in the past. But I would be a fool if I neglected the possibility that it could happen and I feel that, while I am reviewing my facilitation skills, why not give them a bit of a brush up? Further professional development is always good so I thought I would reach out to my peers (that’s you) and see if any of you had any advice or thoughts to share. I am also an inveterate sticky beak who loves to find out how other people do things.

I am contacting various people I know from many different fields; the one thing they all have in common is that they talk on a deep level with groups of people. Among my contacts are a psychotherapist, directors guiding groups of actors through rehearsals, trainers in the neighbourhood house sector, corporate trainers and consultants, sociologists, and event managers. I hope people will respond. It will be interesting to compare advice given across sectors.

The last time I had to deal with a triggered response was when I stepped in, as a favour, to cover an ESL class in a neighbourhood house. The people I was teaching were either migrants or refugees. During one conversation, which was about the necessity of practising a language that you learn in order to remember it, one man, who had arrived in Australia as a refugee after the Vietnamese War, was talking about why he could not remember the French he had learnt as a youngster. He blurted out not just that he was tortured by a prison guard for speaking French, but how. He then blushed and looked mortified; I got the impression that he hadn’t intended to disclose this but had just been hijacked by a terrible memory and spoke on impulse. I expressed sadness for what he had suffered, remarked on how he must find it hard to consider speaking French even now, and then opened up the conversation into a group discussion about how the conditions we live in affect the way we undertake to study language. From here it was relatively easy to steer the conversation onto practical matters like time management, study habits, and the use of conversation partners. This man had not been looking for therapy. He deserved empathy but then he needed to find a way back into the group dialogue and away from opening up traumatic memories. I was aware that anyone listening, given their own refugee backgrounds, might also have their own terrible memories to contend with and I needed to keep the discussion under control for their sake, given that they had turned up on that day expecting an English class and not group therapy.

For the rest of the class, both this individual and the group functioned just fine and the atmosphere continued to be relaxed and friendly. I actually felt that a sense of trust had developed between us all. But after class, on my way home on the train, I cried for this man, the horror he had endured, and the power of memories of that horror to endure for so long afterwards.

"I'm fine. Really. I'm fine." Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com
“I’m fine. Really. I’m fine.”
Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com

As group facilitators we are not all called upon to provide therapy (unless this is your actual job); we have specific goals to achieve for our group, be it a technical skill successfully taught or a piece of theatre successfully developed. But as humans dealing with other humans we need to be prepared for the emotional atmosphere that builds as we work towards these goals, be that good or bad.

Leave a comment below: how do you prepare the emotional context for your participants in the way you plan or promote your activities? How do you deal with deep emotion when it arises?

*But there she was, middle aged, kids safely launched into school, making use of her time doing volunteer work and enrolled in a Diploma course which she was BLITZING because she was as hard working as she was naturally intellectually brilliant. Folks, this is why we DO let genuine asylum seekers into our country. Apart from honouring the humanitarian principle of helping others in need, we gain terrific people who invest their talent, courage, resourcefulness and loyalty into our society.

If you want some background on the facilitated conversations I am developing then please look here. I will be trialling these conversations over the next couple of months. Contact me if you want more information.


“among others equally real…”

“among others equally real…”

or Why We All Hate Assholes

“If the person complaining is ‘standing up for herself’, in order to be recognized, it is as though she were physically present but morally non-existent in the asshole’s view of the world.” P. 27, Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James.

I recently read an interesting book by Philosopher Aaron James called Assholes: A Theory. I plucked it off the library bookshelf because of the title: coming up against mean, selfish and chronically annoying people is something that all people can lay claim to in all walks of life.

“In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:

  • Allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  • Does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  • Is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.” P. 5

Although I didn’t agree with every single contention of James, I did enjoy his book and found it to be enlightening. The chapters that particularly resonated with me were the early ones in which James expounds a theory as to why most of us want to pummel assholes into the ground and leave them as a greasy smear on the carpet.

The attack of the spiritual pygmies

The assholes in my own history – mine have been concentrated within the work sphere – made me pretty miserable, once upon a time, by distorting our workplace culture through consistent nastiness and inappropriate competitiveness. Even while it was happening and certainly after my removal from their toxic auras I could see they were sad people: spiritual pygmies and ineffective workers out of their depth and too scared to admit it. Given this perspective (and on my better days I even manage compassion and empathy for these people) I wonder why, even now, they make my palms itch, my blood boil, and my teeth grind with rage.

The real cost of “a ruined afternoon”

“But the material costs many assholes impose on others – a longer wait in line, a snide remark, a ruined afternoon – are often by comparison (to people like Hitler or Stalin) moderate or very small… Despite the fact that the material costs they impose are often moderate or small, assholes are rightly upsetting, even morally outrageous.” P. 11

Even in those shorts, Hitler remains a personification of evil and so much more than a mere asshole.  (Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com)
Even in those shorts, Hitler remains a personification of evil and so much more than a mere asshole.
(Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com)

James has a theory as to why assholes are so upsetting, and why we find them so “outrageous” and hard to get out from under our skin.

First he unpacks the way the asshole attitudinally positions themselves to the rest of us:

“According to our theory, the asshole does what he does out of a ‘sense of entitlement’, a sense of what he deserves, or is due, or has a right to.” P. 13

James describes how we all feel deserving of a little special consideration every once in a while if circumstances indicate that this is necessary, an example being if we are spoilt a little by friends during our birthday or cut some slack if we are unwell or going through a crisis. But he makes the point that assholes seem to behave this way all the time:

“The asshole, by contrast (with the rest of us), sees no need to wait for special circumstances to come his way in the normal course of things. The asshole feels entitled to allow himself special advantages as he pleases systematically, across a wide range of social interactions. He cuts in line, and interrupts often, and drives without particular care, and persistently highlights people’s flaws.” P. 15

“The general problem is that the asshole helps himself to more than his share, or acts out of turn, or sloughs off the burdens that must generally be carried if the practices in question are to work.” P. 21

The practices alluded to here are those practices that most people adhere to in order for our society to work in such a way that we can live together in something approximating harmony, or at least productive cooperation.

The particular effect assholes have on the rest of us, and the assholes’ attitudes to their assholery, is also discussed:

“The deeper problem is not deliberate exploitation but a kind of wilful insensitivity: he sees no reason to address the ambiguities and uncertainties that inevitably arise when people interact.” Pp. 21-22

I like the phrase “wilful insensitivity”; it neatly sums up why assholes are so infuriating. The next part of the theory James advances relates to what lies behind our fury at these jerks, what specifically makes us want to kill them, which is:

“…a crucial aspect of the asshole’s entrenched sense of entitlement: it immunizes him against the complaints of other people… He is unwilling to recognize anyone who does express a complaint, never considering the complaint might be legitimate. So although one may only suffer the small material cost of being cut ahead of in line, or being interrupted, or being talked over, one also suffers a deeper wrong: one’s very status as a moral person goes unrecognized. Immanuel Kant memorably says that respect for the moral law “strikes down” or “humiliates” our sense of “self-conceit”. This doesn’t happen for the asshole.” Pp. 22-23

“One’s very status as a moral person goes unrecognized.”

For me, this theory really sits up and sings. If some slight from an asshole enrages me way beyond the material value of that slight then it makes sense that it represents that deeper “moral outrage” being perpetuated against me. It represents a cancelling out, a rendering invisible, of my moral personhood.

“If the person complaining is ‘standing up for herself’, in order to be recognized, it is as though she were physically present but morally non-existent in the asshole’s view of the world.

That is why otherwise coolheaded people fall into a fit of rage or lash out at the asshole: they are fighting to be recognized. They are not fighting for the small benefit of having the asshole move to the back of the line or, more generally, for a slightly more fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of cooperation. The person taking a stand against the asshole is fighting to be registered in the asshole’s point of view as morally real. She struggles not simply to be heard but to be seen. She struggles to be seen, in Thomas Nagle’s phrase, as ‘one among others equally real.’” P. 27

I found the way James built this theory to be very satisfying; it made a huge amount of sense to me. I am still unsure as to how to effectively make that stand in order for my moral self to be recognized (or even if this is worth expending energy on if I am dealing with an asshole), but it was still somehow comforting to be able to come to an understanding of what drives my own anger in the face of petty nasty behaviour.

These ideas also have further ramifications for how we operate in the world. As a manager or co-worker what can you do to make the people you deal with feel as if they are “one among others equally real”? If the equality in question pertains to recognising people’s moral personhood then this transcends status, position, or perceived levels of talent. A workplace filled with people who are secure in their status of being morally real in the eyes of others must be a very healthy organism indeed, affording security to its workers and communally robust against the depredations of assholes.

So you want to be a Thought Leader…

So you want to be a Thought Leader…


Judging by my twitter feed, and the number of ‘How to be a thought leader’ type articles that proliferate there, any number of folk in the business world are panting to be acclaimed as thought leaders.

Why? Why ever would you want to do that?

Why be a thought leader? Why not be a thought facilitator, a thought inspirer, a thought nurturer, a thought conceiver, a thought imaginer, a thought creator, a thought explorer, a thought catalyst, a thought sharer?

There will be people out there who would argue that these things are actually what a thought leader is, and that is a valid point.

But I have always considered the term ‘thought leader’ to be a loathsome one, a choice of words that is distorting and unhelpful. Maybe I am just quibbling about semantics, but words are powerful and labels can be limiting.

Being a thought leader implies that you must have thought followers, that you are the alpha of thought havers with a whole lot of beta thinkers gazing up at you on your pedestal in awe. It implies that you have scrambled to the top of some thought having community’s hierarchy.


But thoughts don’t have truck with any such thing.

Great and interesting thoughts arise in ways that are messy, raw, joyful or painful. They may be the result of deep considered thinking, careful and disciplined research, creative experimentation, drunkenness or sudden flashes of insight; often a mixture of all of these*. To align the having of thoughts with language that suggests the careful arranging of a hierarchy, akin to the tidy process of earning a promotion or the brutal machinations of kingmaking, feels wrong to me; distasteful but a little silly.

I am not having a go at you if you have been proclaimed a Thought Leader.

I have encountered a few Thought Leaders through dialogue on twitter and or face to face. Let me be clear: I am not condemning these people. From my interactions with them I get the impression that they are lovely, lovely, lovely people, very open to, and marked by curiosity with, others and their thoughts. And I am quite sure they didn’t hanker after the title of thought leader for themselves. It was assigned to them in various articles and ‘Top 10’ lists by others. I am even happy for them, genuinely pleased that they have been so acclaimed and elevated by their peers for the originality of their thinking.

But if you are hungrily eyeing that place on the pedestal, and avidly reading the ‘How to position yourself as a thought leader’ articles (notepad, pen and fluro marker at the ready), when are you going to find the time to have those original thoughts? This thought hierarchy you want to be leader of is an illusory construct, arbitrarily held in place by the psyche of an industry that thinks in terms of authority, prestige and power. Why, if you want to be active in the realm of ‘thought’ (and yes, I do know how wanky that sounds, apologies), are you giving yourself over to this particular piece of groupthink (a state of being that is notorious for blocking mature and / or interesting thought)?

Deciding that you’re gunna be a thought leader, that you’re going to ‘position’ yourself above your peers, smacks of a lack of originality and a compensatory need for status in a prestige hungry world. This in turn suggests a panting regard for whatever current groupthink designates as a desirable position of authority. Which means that the Thought Leader aspirants are somewhat lacking the ability to think independently of groupthink, that they are squeamish about turning their backs on it. Lack of independent thinking + lack of originality = Thought Leader? Nuh. Doesn’t work. A self-defeating proposition if ever I saw one.


Why not just be a thought lover instead?

Revel in the thoughts of yourself and others, online and off. If you are already doing this, then don’t sell yourself short by talking about your desire to be a Thought Leader. Choose a descriptor that lets people know that yours is a more generous position, that you don’t wish to establish a situation where others (and their thoughts) are relegated to a level of regard below your own.

Promiscuously fall in love with your thoughts and the thoughts of others. You will never want for great company. Thought lovers elicit the companionship, respect, and interest of other thinkers. They find themselves embedded in alliances of fascinating people, and in the path of ideas and insights that are stimulating, challenging, unexpected and even profound. People beat a path to their door for the support they know that thought lovers will give.

Be a thought lover. You’ll have more fun. You might even have so much fun that you forget all about your hunger for prestige. This will clear the brain wonderfully and you’ll have terrific thoughts; hungry ego creates such static.

*Give or take a bit of drunkenness, depending on your habits.

Between a rock and a hard place

Between a rock and a hard place

“Forced into a corner…” What quality of choices do you give your employees?

In December 2014 Senator Ricky Muir voted to support the passage of new asylum seeker legislation. He made a speech explaining his vote which can be seen in the youtube clip below.

Regardless as to where you stand on the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, and therefore regardless as to whether or not you agree with the way Senator Muir voted, what is evident in this speech is how anguished he was at having to make this decision.

During the speech he describes himself as having to make a choice between a bad and a worse decision and so opting for the bad decision; this description stands out in a speech in which words and, visibly from the 4 minute mark, a delivery marked by emotion tell us that this man has been in the grip of a moral dilemma. Senator Muir makes it quite plain that even though he has voted to support the government, his vote should not be taken as an endorsement of their policies in this area. This is an interesting example of someone who is forced by circumstances to act, but who is trying to reveal his reluctance at having to be compelled to act in the way that he was.

“You always have a choice…”

Have you ever been forced into a position where you have felt that you had to choose between a bad and a worse decision? We have all heard the hoary old chestnut that we always have a choice, even if that choice is simply how we respond to external circumstances or the attitude we choose to take to things out of our control. This is undoubtedly true. But what happens if the range of choices we are given, or the conditions we are compelled to respond to, are truly crap?

Image sourced from io9.com
Image sourced from io9.com

What of the workplace bullying victim who has a choice between quitting their job or staying under the authority of a boss who actively intends damage? They might get lucky and get another job (and job hunting is not something that is easy to undertake when you’re recovering from psychoscocial injury) but they also risk ending up on the dole.

What of that bullying victim’s colleagues who bear witness to the bullying day after day, and are faced with the choice of sticking up for the victim by taking on the bully, reporting it to management, or even offering social support to the victim. These are all good things to do, but many people are scared to do them for fear of attracting the bully’s wrath and being marked down as potential victims themselves. This is especially the case in organisations where the bully is a key member of management and / or has been allowed to carry on with impunity by the organisation at large.

What of a manager who has to face down a board who is guilty of poor governance and perhaps even sub-legal or illegal behaviour? Legally, that manager’s duty is pretty clear but in carrying out that duty they are forced to live dangerously, inviting perhaps the sack or harassment. A case I was involved with saw the manager in question verbally abused during board meetings and then undermined by rumours and falsehood so that they were discredited in the eyes of their colleagues and staff. Day to day work was also disrupted and obstructed placing this person in an untenable position.

What of the employee who has to choose between quitting a job and therefore abandoning a project in which they believed and letting down members of their team, or staying in place to see progress in that same project (along with their reputation and / or emotional health) stifled or undermined by poor governance, poor leadership, turf wars or policy directives that they consider to be morally dubious? Again, I have actually witnessed this happen.

“But there are laws against that sort of thing…”

Yes, officially and ostensibly there are always avenues of complaint. Organisations have internal regulations, policies and procedures; societies have regulations and laws in place. But these don’t always work. Bullies can be very clever at covering their tracks and / or leveraging support from management. Even if they are not themselves the problem, board members and managers don’t always have the will, guts, nous or moral backbone to enforce their policies or work on their workplace culture or constraining groupthink. Australia currently has a huge problem with workplace bullying; suggesting that there are many workplaces where this is the case.

I agree that managing an organisation can be hard. From personal experience I can say that I found some aspects of managing people onerous or even tedious. But one of the joyful aspects of managing others is the positive effect you can have on the workplace experience of your employees. As a manager you have enormous power. Applying yourself to initiatives that will provide security, foster clear communication or team spirit can provide support, inspiration and even contentment to employees. Seeing people under your care become happier and more engaged is hugely rewarding. Nurturing talent and initiative can be exciting for both manager and team.

How are you using your power?

Under your management, how are strategy, policy, process and conditions aligning themselves? How much autonomy and personal power does your staff have? Do they have access to avenues of communication, support or resources if they have ideas to share or try? Do they have the chance to contribute to building their team, shaping policy or improving conditions? Do they have the means of redress if something goes wrong?

Or have they been abandoned to a situation where organisational vision and mission statements do not align with the day to day reality in their workplace? Are they caught between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between a bad and worse decision, when dealing with problems? Have they been made to feel like one individual against an uncaring workplace culture? Like Senator Muir, do they feel that they have been backed into a space by circumstance where their personal sense of morality counts for nothing, that their range of personal choices is limited to actions from which they feel a sense of disconnect, be that moral, creative or logical.

“Don’t live your life like you’re trying to survive to the end” is a lovely inspiring thought from Katie Hamilton.

And, I would argue, don’t make others live that way. Use what power you have to empower others.

Happy New Lunar Year!

Happy New Lunar Year!

Image sourced from http://www.shutterstock.com/g/quinky

Wishing you joy and happiness and healthfulness and prosperity during the year of the goat. I will post a ‘proper’ blog next week. In the meantime, if you want to check out what I am up to at the moment you can check that out here: Dangerous Meredith Annual Newsletter 2015 Two things I am super excited about working on this year:

  • An eBook (title to be confirmed) that I am co-writing with evaluation expert Dr. Louise Greenstock. We are putting together an introductory text aimed at introducing social entrepreneurs to planning and evaluation.
  • My new facilitated conversation service – ‘You know the place went bad'; viewing the indicators of organisational dysfunction through the filter of a spy novel.

In the meantime I anticipate having a glorious time providing mentoring and training in innovation and business and project planning. Thanks for your readership over the last year. I’m looking forward to another year of blogging and reading about what you’re doing, so stay connected.

‘You know the place went bad': my presentation at Parallel Fascinations

‘You know the place went bad': my presentation at Parallel Fascinations

On Friday 6 February 2015 I gave a presentation at Parallel Fascinations on how I have been using a classic spy novel as a filter or tool to examine issues to do with workplace culture and organisational dysfunction.

Parallel Fascinations… … is a new event series that I am co-organising and co-hosting with digital sociologist Alexia Maddox and artist and event curator Romaine Logere. To quote from our promotional text: “Parallel Fascinations draws upon ideas of private obsessions and the space where seemingly disparate ideas collide.  Reminiscent of the Salon, we are seeding an interdisciplinary group that crosses academic and industry sectors to engage with topics raised through this theme.”

Parallel Fascinations event
Parallel Fascinations event

“You know the place went bad.” My presentation was about the classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre, a beautifully written and engrossing page turner, peopled by fascinating characters. Set against a background of an organization beset with problems of scandal, poor governance and toxic culture, its plot revolves around the hunt for a double agent who is wreaking havoc within this same organization.

Can a literary work be a filter through which we contemplate the health and functionality of organisational culture? The way Le Carre has designed his narrative makes these issues intrinsic in the telling of his story and the deep engagement of his readers. A skim reading of any newspaper will provide instances of real life organisations, across all sectors, dealing with these same aforementioned issues. Many of us have war stories to tell of our own experiences with bullying bosses, ineffective managers, stifled innovation, poor communication and perhaps even sub-legal or illegal behaviour. A discussion of a literary work such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its narrative techniques can give us the space and perspective from which to examine our own experiences of poor workplace culture, while the primal mythological pull of responding to storytelling allows us to connect with this discussion on an emotional, instinctual and imaginative level.

image sourced from en.wikipedia.org
image sourced from en.wikipedia.org

“… question reality… destabilize uncertainty…”

As author Matt Haig says in his tweet quoted above, fiction can allow us to delve into the uncertainties in life. A great novel will engage the intellect, the emotions and the imagination. Using a novel as a tool or filter the reader can consider themes or issues in a way that bypasses black and white thinking, allowing us to consider alternative viewpoints or different realities. The group who attended Parallel Fascinations last Friday shared very thoughtful and rich perspectives in response to the themes upon which I was focusing and the conversation veered in some surprising directions. As a presenter I am enormously grateful for their input, and very pleased that my presentation was able to tap into themes that were of interest to them.

What next? Inspired by the response to my presentation I will keep on working with this novel and the themes I have identified.

A friend I was speaking to this morning, who attended last Friday, said she thought the format was unique; it offered participants an experience that allowed for and elicited reflection, speculation, and intellectual curiosity. Our event had apparently avoided the formal qualities of a lecture, the (sometimes) combative tone of an academic panel review, and the wishy-washiness of an unstructured informal conversation. She felt that participants felt equally relaxed about either joining in the discussion or just nursing a glass of wine and listening.

I am wondering if I can adapt my presentation into some kind of workshop – some sort of facilitated discussion – that I can take into organisations to help them reflect on their own workplace culture and identify areas they wish to work on. The final format of this has still not ‘found’ me, but I am drooling in anticipation of the actions I can take to go and find it.

Romaine, Alexia and I are, thus far, very happy with the way Parallel Fascinations is shaping up. It is a young thing still, mine was just the second presentation (Alexia gave the first presentation on the theme of Serendipity – it was fascinating). We have been incredibly fortunate to be supported by the Digital Learning Hub in their new venue – The Channel at Hamer Hall at the Arts Centre – and Parallel Fascinations will have a home in the future. We look forward to offering more presentations during the coming year. For more information please check out our blog at parallelfascinations.wordpress.com

To seem the stranger lies my lot – Part 2

To seem the stranger lies my lot – Part 2

This is the second part of my blog ‘To seem a stranger lies my lot’. You can find the first half of the blog here. There are quotes from one of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ sonnets in this blog, the whole text of which can be found below.

Not being heard, finding one’s self on the outer of a dialogue or group, can lead to feelings of isolation or abandonment. Sometimes we make a deliberate choice to be a quiet or less-verbally active participant of a discussion. But when someone has some ideas or observations to share, and they are denied the chance to share them or these things are ignored or derided when they do, then that can make that someone feel estranged and cast off. Doing this often in a relationship can be toxic, both for the relationship itself and for the confidence of the person being blocked.


And this can be the case in any kind of relationship – between lovers, family members, friends, or at work. It can happen, too, between institutions and constituents or between businesses and their customers. When people feel they have a stake in what’s going on in some arena of their lives, and when they then invest the time and energy and goodwill to speak up, they can be enraged or disheartened if they are ignored. If these feelings become further compounded, people are inspired towards acts that speak of bitterness, diminishing loyalty, or even subversiveness.


source: Wikipedia commons
source: Wikipedia commons

“… dark heaven’s baffling ban…”*

To quote Gerard Manly Hopkins “Only what word / Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban / Bars or hell’s spell thwarts.” To feel that the words that express our experiences or potential are banned, barred or thwarted is incredibly disempowering. The victim of bullying in the workplace who feels that they have no one to support or even believe them, Muslims who see themselves described as terrorists by bigots, minorities who struggle to get job interviews, women who hit the glass ceiling despite the excellence of their work, anyone who feels that no matter what they do or what they say they will not be noticed or will be wilfully misunderstood – all these people will feel that estrangement.


“Only what word Wisest my heart breeds”.

By not being good listeners, either as individuals or as institutions, we also deny ourselves the opportunity of connecting with someone else’s thoughts. We deny ourselves the chance to hear and be moved by insights, perhaps even words of wisdom that have been bred in the heart of someone else’s imagination, intellect, emotions or spirit.


It behoves us as individuals to learn to be good listeners, to understand that this is not the same as just not making noise while someone else is speaking. We need to develop the concentration to tune into others’ words, to read body language and all the other ‘tells’ that provide context or nuance to words that are being spoken, and also to actively listen and respond in such a way that the speaker knows they have been heard. This is as important for friendships as it is for Manager–Employee or Business-Customer relationships.


So too do organisations and governments need to learn to be good listeners. ‘Community’ ‘consultation’ should not just be a pair of weasel words; the establishment needs to be prepared to be surprised and challenged by what they hear, and not just to fashion consultation processes that will elicit the responses they want to hear.


On both a micro and macro level it is only by undertaking to really listen that we can build trust and enjoy a true exchange of ideas and communion of will and values.


*The sonnets that Hopkins wrote that are designated by scholars as his ‘Terrible Sonnets’ are not called this because the writing is bad. The writing is devastatingly great. Rather, the sonnets describe a dark night of the soul and are heartbreaking to read.

Sonnet No. 44 by Gerard Manly Hopkins

TO seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
  England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife         5
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.
  I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can         10
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.