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Digital InclusionDigital Literacy

Digital Detox 2.4: Mindfulness & Radical Listening in Digital Spaces

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[This post was originally sent as an email newsletter to our Digital Detox participants.]

Written by Bob Cole, Director of Exploratory Initiatives and Partnerships, and Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak, Director of Digital Pedagogy and Media

Because listening is multidimensional in so many ways – we ‘hear’ others words, content, inflection, and body language, while also ‘hearing’ via our perceptions, histories, and cultures- radical listening teaches us about the speaker and hearer and multiple spaces in between, affording new ways of knowing and being.  …Radical listening is thus prismatic and transformative…” (Melissa Winchell, Tricia Kress, & Ken Tobin, 2016, p. 104)

…when someone realizes they should be listening to another person’s ideas, and they want to show they are listening by outwardly amplifying that work, but in reality they have not deeply absorbed the work or engaged with the ideas” – Maha Bali, Lip Service Listening, describing the opposite of radical listening

Have you ever experienced lip service listening when participating in social spaces online? Have you ever participated in an online class discussion where it seemed like people were talking past each other, rather than deeply engaging with each others’ ideas? How might these interactions have been different, had everyone involved set an intention to listen, to really listen, to one another? In this detox, we explore what a practice of radical listening might look like as a way of pushing back against bias in our interactions online.

What is radical listening? While acknowledging and making space for the multiplicity of ways of understanding and performing radical listening, we (Bob and Sarah) resonate with a description of radical listening as the practice of “consciously valuing others by attempting to hear what the speaker is saying for the meaning he or she intends, rather than the meaning the listener interprets through his/her own view of the world” (Winchell, Kress, & Tobin, 2016, p. 101). This practice of being open to, and valuing, difference is at the heart of radical listening; it’s having a depth of curiosity about others and their experience, and a willingness to engage with difference. Grace Benjamin, a parent of a child with a disability, illustrates this beautifully in her blog post reflecting on how her parenting experiences are overlooked and unheard by others in online spaces:

And they–the unseeing ones–don’t know that they are smudges on my morning window. They may sometimes upset my sense of balance, but they cannot ever take from me the love I feel for my son, for all children like mine, on the margins. And they can’t erase the love I feel for the other ones who share this sidelong space with us, who are sidelined for reasons of skin color or sexual preference or gender identity, or lack of money, or religious identity, or history, or injury, or different mobility, or whatever cold justifications are used to scoot some of us out.

I love them all. I want to see them better. My curiosity is fired and I feel like I have some small sense of why they might be hurting. But instead of stopping there, my broken open heart wants to know more. Tell me, I want to say, why you are hurting. …I don’t know your pain, but I do know pain, so let me listen and hold.

In consciously and intentionally making space to listen to others, we are “making an effort to understand others’ standpoints without seeking to change them” (Ken Tobin, 2009, p. xix). This can be especially challenging for academics who are trained to critique and find fault; radical listening is about opening doors to possibility and connection, rather than landing upon the one, “right” answer.

So, how might we benefit from taking a radical listening approach to our interactions in digital spaces? As the last Detox, “Biased, who me?” pointed out, the social media echo chamber tends to amplify our cognitive biases – shortcuts in our thinking that help us to make sense of the world, what Daniel Kahneman calls “fast thinking.” Because of our cognitive biases, we have to slow down and be intentional (Kahneman’s “slow thinking”); mindfulness and radical listening provide ways of slowing down and working against our cognitive biases.

Take Action

Radical listening in digital spaces might be a call for us to embrace what Tobin et al. term “counterclockwise conduct” characterized by a creative resistance against our own cognitive biases and default behaviors, a heightened sense of curiosity in learning and being with the other, opening ourselves up with humility to valuing difference, and attuning ourselves to the affordances of others’ histories and perspectives independent of our personal constructions and associated value systems.

In action, we imagine that radical listening could take many forms. Give these a try:

  • As Howard Rheingold writes in Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, “Mindfulness is what connects your attention to skills of digital participation, collaboration, crap detection, and network smarts. Deliberately exercised, continually strengthened, and judiciously applied, mindfulness is the most important practice for anyone who is trying to swim through the info-stream instead of being swept away by it.” (p. 64) Tune your attentional awareness through mindfulness practices like noticing your breath or a body scan.
  • Notice your default digital behaviors, those associated with “system 1” (automatic, unconscious, emotional) thinking in digital spaces, then attempt to modify one for a short period of time with a slower, more conscious approach:
  • In teaching and learning contexts like an online discussion forum, consider how Emily Wray’s RISE Model for Peer Feedback (Reflect > Inquire > Suggest > Elevate) might serve as a framework for creating more generative radical listening spaces
  • Also in academic contexts, the practice of applying “close reading” strategies to a text could be helpful in developing a radical listening position in digital spaces. Close reading practices invite observational and reflective analysis of texts while acknowledging that writers and their readers converse within complex historical, cultural, and sociopolitical contexts. A few prompts that might open up close reading and rich discussion include:
    • What I know about the writer is…
    • What I know about the writer’s audience is…
    • What I hear the writer saying is…
    • Why this seems important to the writer is…
    • What I wonder is…
    • The questions this raises for me are…
    • What this means to me is…
  • Next time you’re in a comment thread on social media, set a pomodoro timer for ten minutes with the goal of radically listening by asking curiosity- and learning-inspired questions of others, rather than leading with your own thoughts and opinions
  • Or, you might try incorporating some of these discourse moves in your digital communication (email, when commenting on social media, etc.).  (Want an example? Read the transcript of a conversation between Bob and Sarah where we try to employ radical listening techniques including these discourse moves:
    • I am hearing you say X; is this what you mean?
    • I’m not sure I understand, could you tell me more about that?
    • This sounds or reminds me of X; was that your intention?
    • How did you come to that?
    • Thank you for saying that…, I like what you said about…, and That makes sense because…

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