Can active listening work without trust?

Colleagues and I recently gave a workshop on listening as part of a series of teach-ins connected with the inspirational student strike that just ended on our campus. By listening, we meant the kind of radical, empathetic attention through which, in bell hooks’ words, people “engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility.” 96 people attended!  After a series of small- and whole-group activities, we opened the Zoom session to questions. Several were versions of the one in the title: How can active listening work where there isn’t trust? How can people listen with open mind and heart when they feel tense or under threat?

Reflecting on these questions now, I am rethinking their logic. Rather than regard trust, calm, and safety as preconditions for listening, is it possible that they follow from it?  Might listening actively — with loving witness, embodied empathy, and unguarded curiosity — foster trust, bring calm, and reduce threat?

Conceiving of listening as a practice for improving rough situations rather than useful only when things are already smooth reveals it as a creative process. Sounds good, right?  But probably also unrealistic.  Why?

One trouble is time.  So often conflictual discussions are strictly scheduled, without scope for an open-ended process, in the run-up to a high-stakes decision of some kind.

Another trouble is design. Listening depends on a conversation design that encourages conversation.  The participant structure of typical discussions pushes people into broadcasting, and hardening, their point of view rather than softening to consider others’. Debate foregrounds the binary of yes or no.  This binary sometimes has a place, sure, but it designs more conversations than it needs to.

Alternatively, conflict theorist and facilitator Arnold Mindell calls conflict resolution an aspect of the “Dance of the Ancient One.” Mindell teaches people to engage conflict by “dancing” with its energy. Feel the energy of your position, he says, then feel into the energy of your opponent’s position.  Next, imagine a specific, and beloved, place on earth that pulls this conflict towards it. Then allow your body to move (actually!) in a way that joins the energies together. Through this movement learn a new way through the conflict.

Mediator and writer Ken Cloke, Founder of the Center for Dispute Resolution, taught us something quite similar when I completed level 1 mediation training with him.  A mediator, he said, must trust that every conflict can be resolved, but in a way not known ahead of the process of mediating, of listening.

Listening for the truth of each presenting story creates a way forward as the stories, and the people telling them, open to deeper truths coming through for healing, for wholeness. This may sound nice in principle and unworkable in practice.  But we can organize practice around the principle and make it real.