Why Listening Is the Most Powerful Catalyst For Change


To guarantee the survival of the human race, we need to learn to hear one another, writes resident soul doctor Nick Kettles.

It is likely that when we think about Paris in 2015, we’ll remember the atrocities of the Charlie Hebdo and Friday 13 terrorist attacks, and not COP 21: UN Climate Change Conference.

It would be natural to ask how can we afford to focus on the environment in the face of such grave threats to our core values and national security; perhaps we should put the discussion about climate change on the back burner until we figure out how to protect ourselves from each other?

However, it would be churlish not to consider the role human relationships must play in creating a sustainable society. National security and climate change absolutely go hand in hand, because while it’s clear its impact doesn’t single out one nation over another, or discriminate between the secular and the non-secular, it is developing nations who are the hardest hit by extreme weather events. And it is the poorest people in these countries who arguably, are most receptive to alternative narratives such as the creation of a Caliphate through Holy War. We don’t talk about this enough. Evolution thrives or falls dependent on our capacity to relate to one and other. It’s our ability to be in the right relationship with one another other, which will sustain the conditions of a sustainable society, more than the basic behavior changes required to bring about sustainability in the first place. After all, it’s quite possible Jihadists also recycle.

It’s therefore incumbent upon those who campaign, to take on the challenge of articulating what it means to be in right relationship with each other and the Earth, as intrinsic to creating a sustainable society.

We can begin this process by paying due attention to not just the story we are telling, but also the way we are telling it. When science is so conclusive, its purveyors can quickly become dogmatic themselves, and people simply don’t want to be forced to believe anything because it makes them feel both blamed and patronised. This may indeed be why much of the media, continues to position climate change science as an ideological crusade, fought against nobly by a range of minority groups; concerned to assert their right to disagree as much as protect their interests.

Blame by its very nature necessitates defense of ones position; each party continuing to build their case until the opportunity to listen deeply to the other’s original position is all but lost.


In seeking a consensus for change based solely on the science, we have often failed to find common ground with those who may share some of our values. The alternative is to make ‘alignment’ the goal, where we seek to align around common goals and interests. At first blush this might appear as an invitation to compromise, but it’s not, because the process of ‘alignment’ offers a better chance of recognising the humanity in each other – and that’s a far better foundation for further creative collaboration.

Of course, the key to creating alignment requires all parties to look beyond seeing others as transactional objects required to get something done; minds to persuade, votes to win, and hands to fill recycling bins. We must be willing instead to see the full human being in front of us. At the very least take a fundamental risk to be open to influence from each other, even those we may actively dislike. Even that small step is a big philosophical shift for some who have yet to explore what it means to be human themselves, and yet when we do so sincerely, surprising things can happen.

Who would have thought that the head of the Catholic Church whose basic opposition to contraception is such a burr in the saddle in creating sensible population growth controls would become such a fierce advocate for the environment? To be sure one of their positions is incongruent with the other, and yet we are more powerful when we acknowledge the ground we share.

Many environmentalists they might find alignment around a common interest in nation states achieving energy independence with right of centre libertarians who otherwise might be seen as the enemy. It may be one is motivated by protecting the earth, and the other national security, but it is common ground they nonetheless can align around.


We can alienate Christian Fundamentalists by telling them how ridiculous their origin story is, or we might get curious about the underlying values their story suggests. If we did we might find much to appreciate about the idea of being a good steward of the earth, even if we disagree with the idea that it was a God we don’t believe in, who created our home.

Through the process of alignment we not only can create a broad coalition for catalysing a critical mass of change, we also begin to model a new more respectful way of relating to each other which will serve not just our grandchildren, but their grandchildren too.

There are two foundational skills key to creating sustainable working relationships: listening and curiosity.

When I listen to someone, it’s important I ask myself two fundamental questions.

The first: ‘Who am I listening to?’ Am I listening to someone I must negotiate with in order to get something done? Or am I listening to another human being, with profound curiosity about who they are as a whole person, with, hopes and fears, dreams and potential to realise?

If I am willing to see and be a witness to the human condition in another person, then I am more likely to be able to hear them in a fundamentally different way. Therefore the second question I need to ask myself is: ‘What exactly am I listening for?’

If I am listening simply for evidence they are wrong, or for weaknesses in their argument through which I can build my case further, I am not really listening at all. I am in fact giving the appearance of listening, while I formulate my rebuttal.The alternative is to listen to what is not being said, to the meaning beneath the words, and the emotional tonality of their voice. This more active form of listening is the basis for being able to articulate and feedback to them, the values you hear are important to them.

When people hear what is important to them fed back to them, they feel seen, and respected, and ultimately more likely to open up further, as well as take an interest in what you value, making points of alignment easier to identify.


Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski from Flickr.

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Nick Kettles is a Salt's very own 'Soul Doctor'. Nick is a writer, consultant, and trainer of Co-Active Coaching, with the Coaches Training Institute. To find out more: www.nickkettles.co.uk