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A Magazine for Sheffield

The importance of co-listening: Why is hearing not enough?

Elim Lau explains the significance of co-listening and how it works ahead of Ian Nesbitt’s appearance at the Festival of Debate 2024.

Two giant steel balls with the reflection of the Winter Garden and other buildings.

Reflections in the balls of steel, Sheffield

Philippa Willitts

How long is it since you’ve sat on a chair with your eyes closed, listening to the birds outside the window, hearing your breath, and feeling your heartbeat? We often notice how well people speak, but ignore how well people listen.

Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher, said: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” However, people seem to speak more than they listen, focusing on expressing their thoughts and opinions without actively listening to the sounds around them.

Ian Nesbitt is a socially engaged art worker, filmmaker, writer and pedestrian based in Sheffield. His work looks at cooperation, conviviality and kinship while exploring how to live well with the unfolding consequences of a collapsing system. Nesbitt describes co-listening as “a practice of togetherness, addressing the question of how to live well amongst the grief and debris of a collapsing system.”

What is co-listening?

Co-listening is not just about hearing; it is about transformative listening. It is a collective practice that encourages participants to listen for understanding, not just agreement. It frees us from the need to respond so that we can genuinely engage with what others are saying.

Ian Nesbitt describes it as “deep listening as a transformative collective practice”, but inevitably, this shortens to “deep listening”.

Deep listening, exploring the difference between the involuntary nature and the conscious nature of listening, is a well-established practice initiated and developed by American composer Pauline Oliveros.

She said: “We open in order to listen to the world as a field of possibilities, and we listen with narrowed attention to specific things of vital interest to us in the world.

“Through accessing many forms of listening, we grow and change, whether we listen to the sounds of our daily lives, the environment, or music. Deep listening takes us below the surface of our consciousness and helps to change or dissolve limiting boundaries.”

Building on the principles of deep listening, co-listening is “not a conversation, but an invitation to listen deeply, and share what emerges. Freed from the need to respond, the practice allows participants to listen for understanding rather than agreement.”

A small group of people listen intently to somebody who is speaking.


SHVETS production

Why is it good for us to practise co-listening?

Reflecting and enhancing our relationships with other beings

If we want to actively hear the sounds of daily life, such as nature, our thoughts, imagination, and dreams, we must stop what we’re doing and pay full attention to them. After calming ourselves down and focusing on one thing — listening — we can discover the sounds we have never noticed. Through a deep listening practice, we listen to the sounds we often ignore, collectively enjoy the silence, and go into dialogue with our surroundings, which enhances our connection with the environment.

Ian Nesbitt says: “We listen together to sounds from our individual environments that punctuate our shared silence: children playing in Amsterdam, birds in a tree in Alexandria, a coffee being delivered to a cafe table in Palermo, the dusk falling in Paris, a laptop overheating in Sheffield.”

Making space for our individual and collective griefs

Co-listening can accommodate our individual circumstances while we share a collective activity. In the book Social Computing and Social Media: User Experience and Behavior, co-listening does not require participants to be in the same place, but does require them to be doing it at the same time.

This powerful experience can be transformative for those who take part. Nesbitt explains: “Where I find myself in the process is in a space of both intimacy and spaciousness. Intimate because the sessions have been characterised by an uncommon openness that moves me every time, and spacious because they could develop in any direction.”

What is the core belief of Nesbitt’s workshop?

Starting from where we find ourselves” isn't just a phrase; it’s a powerful guiding principle. It invites us to embrace our present circumstances, recognise our past, and envision our future. It reminds us to cherish our relationships with tangible and intangible worlds and act in unity. Through co-listening, we hope for a brighter future, share our collective aspirations, and acknowledge the grief and trauma we may face.

Learn more

Where We Find Ourselves: A Co-Listening Practice takes place on 1 May at Bloc Projects as part of Festival of Debate

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