We Need To Talk About The Importance Of Listening

Australia, we have a communication problem.

02/07/2016 5:45 AM AEST | Updated 02/08/2016 5:46 AM AEST
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Listening goes hand in hand with empathy.

Australia, we have a communication problem. If there's one thing to be learned from the events of the past month, it's that, as a nation, we're struggling to listen to and hear each other, both in our politics and in our communities.

In Malcolm Turnbull's mea culpa moment when taking responsibility for the Liberal Party carnage, he acknowledged people's disillusionment with politics and reaffirmed the role of politicians as needing to listen. This shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Four weeks before the election, Fairfax released the results of a survey of over 50,000 readers that ranked the major party leaders on empathy -- their perceived ability to understand the concerns of average Australians. Malcolm Turnbull failed the empathy test, scoring 4.6. Bill Shorten passed, barely, with 5.3. Richard Di Natale came out a low top with 7.1.

Such a failure in empathy points to a broken conversation. It's a failure to listen deeply to people, to understand, and to engage and be authentic. In politics, a failure of empathy is a failure of courage and courageous leadership. A failure to be true to a politician's core purpose -- to serve the community by listening to our needs, wants and values. And in the election it played out with almost one in four Australians choosing to direct their first preference away the major parties.

Mending the conversation and the broken relationships between our politicians and our people, and rebuilding community trust, is going to take more than just sound bites. Empathy and deep listening needs to be reflected in intentions, policies and actions.

To get there we need to see a departure from politics as it has become. Overall, the election played out in stereotypical fashion. The main parties kept to their corners. They employed the usual arguments, and offered the empty slogans we've come to expect. The shallow narrative on offer didn't capture the imagination or the needs of our communities. We, as voters, craved realness and boldness. We wanted to see a vision of an Australia that's ready for the future, but we didn't get it.

There were fleeting moments of courage; Turnbull's gesture of holding an iftar dinner with the Muslim community, Shorten's nod to the Great Barrier Reef, but these moments were undermined by inconsistent dialogue and lack of action. And the battle lines on which the leaders chose to fight the election -- the economy, jobs, Medicare -- illuminate the battle lines on which the contest was not fought. Climate change. Social Inclusion. Economic inequality. Our leaders preferred to stay safe rather than to step into the grey, untested areas of conversation and policy-making.

Yet as we face now many moments of change and uncertainty, the status quo does not exist as a safe option this time; the demand for courageous leadership and brave conversation has never been higher. As the Brexit experience and the Trump phenomenon show, the consequences of our leaders not listening and ignoring the emerging fault lines can be devastating. Papering over the cracks with slogans, small play and hollow conversation won't create stronger communities.

But the listening disease is not only afflicting our politicians, it's in our communities too. Sonia Kruger's endorsement of a ban on Muslim immigration and the firestorm response shows just how much we're talking past each other. As Waleed Aly's gravitron analogy so brilliantly illustrated, "in the cycle of outrage... we're all pushed the edges and it becomes harder and harder, like it takes superhuman strength, to meet in the middle".

We could do well to take up Aly's call to action and take ownership over the role each of us has to play in creating the society we want. The fault lines we see emerging are big, unprecedented even, and depend on all of us to address. At the same time as demanding more from our leaders, let's remember that it's a two-way conversation.

Ultimately, as novelist Richard Flanagan astutely said: "we need politics like we need sewerage, and like sewerage we should want it to work properly and well, but not make too much of it, not create of it a fetish by glorifying it... watching it incessantly on 24-hour TV stations."

As a community then, how do we reclaim some of our power? How do we live our lives, each put our values into action and make our politics reflect us?

How can we have our own brave conversations, and step out of our worlds and listen to those not like us? How can we become more comfortable with those grey areas of conversation, where a perceptive question is more powerful than a dogmatic answer, where the goal of the conversation is not to arrive at a hard-and-fast solution but to explore and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable?

As Flanagan further said, the road to tyranny is "paved with the small cobbles of silence, lies and deceit" but perhaps our communities advance "to a better place through countless acts of everyday goodness shown by millions of people too easily dismissed as everyday".

Australia, we need to talk. So why not challenge yourself in your everyday to talk with honesty, talk with vulnerability, and listen without judgment, and observe the power of these small conversations to strengthen our community.

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