Listen Deeply to Learn Deeply

Loretta Goodwin, AYPF Senior Director

“Everyone has a story worth listening to,” a participant at a recent Hewlett Foundation grantee meeting reminded us as we gathered in Detroit to discuss how structural racism and its reinforcing beliefs impact education and the community there. Yet listening is not an easy undertaking. It’s difficult work, requiring patience and preparation, a slowing down to pay attention before speaking or reacting. As I reflect, I realize how crucial it is to remember to really listen before we act. Here are some highlights:

Preparing to listen
A quote from Karl A. Menninger, an American psychiatrist, set the tone as we thought about the art of conversation, and were reminded that we need each other’s help to become better listeners:

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”

In pairs, we were invited to truly listen to one another as we pondered: “What is your WHY for tackling equity as part of the work you do?” Having the undivided attention of my partner helped me to share my story – I am driven to work towards equity after growing up amidst segregation in apartheid-era Cape Town, attending colored schools, and teaching in a colored high school. I listened carefully as my partner recounted his experience with Aboriginal education in Australia, and we both realized how deeply these formative experiences color our current reality and drive our passion to pursue equitable education for all kids.

Teaching students how to listen

Another part of the preparation included hearing from Casco Bay High School seniors. This reinforced for me that we can and should start this listening journey early, inculcating this important skill in our students. In April, these students travelled from Portland, Maine to Detroit to interview residents in the city about their stories. They then created a documentary film that captured their learning: Listen to the City – The Spirit of Detroit. Students shared their reflections on this exercise in deeper learning. To create their film, they learned photography, videography, sound technology and interviewing skills as well as deep listening. Their comments reflected how profoundly they were affected by the experience of interviewing people in Detroit: “I worked hard to put my preconceived ideas aside.”

“Our listening can be a healing experience for the people we visit with.” “I learned to listen deeply because from that you get the most compelling stories – it leads to understanding. It lets them know that their story matters. Listening leads to learning – about the person and surroundings.”

As they spoke, I was reminded of a similar listening experience I conducted with my students in Cape Town on the 40th anniversary of our high school. We interviewed past pupils and teachers of the school who had experienced forcible relocation of their homes due to apartheid policies and practices. As they told their stories, it was evident that, although it was difficult to relive painful events, they appreciated being heard and having their experience validated in a publication we produced.

Listening requires patience
As students shared, they also noted that it takes patience to listen well. Another presenter reminded us that we sometimes jump to conclusions rapidly, proclaiming that places like Detroit don’t work. He stated, “we want to blow them up, disrupt them.” We also want to transform them – a transformation that’s often imposed from outside. Yet we have to remember that the conditions they currently experience did not occur overnight or as the result of one or two factors. Rather, we must examine the intersection of race, class, and opportunity as contributing factors over decades. We have to take the time and employ patience to really listen to a wide variety of people to make sense of the current reality.

Listening means withholding judgement
Following these preparatory exercises, as well as an examination of data related to Detroit, we ventured into the community, visiting a wide variety of organizations that serve the city’s people: Cass Tech High School, ACLU, Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, United Way, 482 Forward, Grand Valley State University, Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, and The Children’s Center. I went to Cass Tech High and had the opportunity to interview a student, Kyle. Although my partner and I arrived with a list of prepared questions, which Kyle addressed, it was difficult to stop myself from veering into analysis and/or critiques as he shared his story. I tried to stay focused on not only what he was saying, but also his body language as he talked with obvious passion about the Human Services pathway he was following and the supportive relationships he had with teachers. This does not mean there is no place for deeper reflection at a later time. We certainly engaged in some of that during a debrief session back at our meeting space. It did mean that I needed to concentrate to truly discern not only the verbal messages Kyle was sharing, but also what he was feeling. He animatedly shared about not having had one bad teacher at Cass, his internship with a bail bondsman downtown, his motivational speaking opportunities, and participation in a local radio show designed to warn students about the dangers of drugs. Rather than judging what was happening at the school as I listened to the principal, spoke to Kyle, and walked the corridors peeking into classrooms, I attempted to remain focused on looking for the bright spots that I could weave together. Doing so was difficult but vital, as it reinforced the need to remember that we are dealing with human beings who have hopes and dreams, triumphs and challenges, and are working to make the most of their circumstances.

At the end of our meeting in Detroit, I flew home, but the emphasis on real listening continues to challenge me. I leave you with this quote from Margaret Wheatley, an American writer:

“Why is being listened to healing? Listening creates relationship. Our natural state is to be together (though we keep moving away from each other) – we haven’t lost the need to be in relationship. Everybody has a story, and everybody wants to tell it in order to connect.”

As you ponder the quote, think about who YOU will connect with today? Who do you need to listen to deeply? Then use the Constructivist Listening Guiding principle we did as you put this into practice: I agree to listen to and think about you in exchange for you doing the same for me.



The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.