In our increasingly polarized and political world, the act of listening seems an afterthought, often taking a backseat to reactions and proclamations.
“When things feel stressful and divided, as they do now for a variety of reasons, it’s so much easier to jump to conclusions and fill in assumptions about other individuals or other groups than it is to take time to listen,” says Leah Anderson, executive director of the SNF Paideia Program. “That makes it even more difficult for us to find a way forward together.”
The SNF Paideia program focuses on educating the whole person and bridging differences through four pillars: dialogue, wellness, service, and citizenship.
“At Paideia, we’re really interested in exploring the role of listening in dialogue because we believe it is an essential ingredient for creating constructive and thoughtful engagement across differences,” Anderson said.
A recent lecture and set of workshops presented by SNF Paideia in partnership with the Weitzman School of Design and the Center for Experimental Ethnography took on the issue of listening together with two speakers who have transformed what it means to listen and what the act of listening can achieve.
“Learning to Listen in Troubled Times” featured Ernesto Pujol, a 2020-21 Keith L. and Katherine S. Sachs Visiting Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, social choreographer and creator of “The Listening School” and Aaron Levy, creator of “the Listening Lab” at Penn Medicine. The hybrid discussion was moderated by Deborah Thomas, director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography.
Other ways of listening
Pujol started his lecture by asking the audience to think about the title of the workshop and define what constitutes troubled times for them.
“I was thinking that the magnitude of ‘troubled times’ is a global statement and we try now more than ever to listen to the world, to what is happening in many cultures, societies, countries...it’s impossible to grasp all of it at all times,” he said. “I think it’s very important to define what constitutes troubled times for you, because that’s what will curate your listening.”
Pujol describes the work he’s done around the globe as organizing “listening performances,” essentially gathering average citizens as well as artists to listen to strangers and creating spaces and moments where listening happens.
This included a 2019 performance in Germany that was part of a celebration marking the 370th anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia treaty, which ended the war between Protestants and Catholics. Pujol hosted his listening event at the city’s town hall, where the treaty was signed, and stationed “listeners” around the building. Members of the public could come in, find out what languages the listeners spoke and talk for as long as they wished. The listeners simply listened in silence, offering no comments or advice. When the guest was done speaking, the listeners followed a prompt to say “Thank you for speaking to me. I have listened to you,” and escorted them from the building.
“There are millions of people walking around the world feeling unheard and many of them actually have access to teachers, priests, rabbis, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and so on,” he said. “What they need is someone to listen to them without interrupting them, without an agenda, without judgment. To release.”
He shared an anecdote from the event, in which a woman sought him out as a listener precisely because he didn’t speak her language, German.
“She went on to speak for an hour, to cry, to sob, to speak very dramatically, and at the end she said ‘thank you, I needed to let go of that but I can’t reveal it,’” he said. “She was practicing with me, she was letting it go.”
Pujol believes that act was a step toward the woman eventually sharing this information with someone who could understand and help her.
Listening as a form of care
Levy then spoke about his work with the Listening Lab at Penn Medicine, and shared his thoughts on the therapeutic effects of feeling heard.
The Listening Lab is a storytelling initiative that embraces the act of listening and sharing, and advocates for the power of listening as a form of care. Stories shared with the lab are put on a website which hosts a growing library of audio stories written and recorded by Penn Medicine staff, providers, patients, and caregivers that bring to life important experiences and reflections on aspects of health care that aren’t always discussed.
“At some point in life, everyone experiences profound suffering and loss, whether directly as patient or in their capacity as a family member or a friend, a caregiver or a clinician,” he said.
“Many of us are often socialized to hide this vulnerability and to not seek emotional support. So, in these difficult moments, the Listening Lab offers people an opportunity to express their emotions and their experiences in the form of stories and to know that they’re being listened to and heard. This process encourages individuals to translate their experiences into a new narrative form, one that connects the storyteller and the listener and reveals their shared humanity,” said Levy.
He played a three-minute snippet of one of the stories from the Lab’s archive from a man who unexpectedly received a lifesaving organ transplant. In the recording, he describes the incredibly profound experience and his awareness of his connection to the now deceased young man who enabled him to live. He describes how he hears the young man sometimes, not as a voice but a sensation.
“It's really hard to express how I feel connected to this young man. I don’t know much about him. I think about the life he lost. All I can do with my second life is to live it in a way that would make him proud,” he says in the clip.
The work in the Listening Lab builds upon key tenets of narrative medicine, that empathy and connection may be enhanced by receiving an individual’s concerns and experiences in a story context, Levy said.
“Listening to another's story is often transformative and therapeutic for the listener. Opening oneself to stories about someone else’s lived experience can help them get a new perspective, as well as become inspired by their own strength and their own resilience,” he said.
SNF Paideia fellow Amy Krimm, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences from Silver Spring, Maryland, attended the lecture expecting to learn some strategies to help her be a better listener.
“Ultimately, what I took out from it was that listening and storytelling are transformative, and listening can look like so many different things,” said Krimm, who is majoring in visual studies and minoring in American sign language. “The word ‘listening’ can have the connotation of simply hearing, and that is something I want to challenge, especially with my background as an American sign language minor.”
The transplant recipient’s story helped drive that home for her, she said.
“Something that Aaron Levy said that stood out to me was that that listening doesn’t have to mean hearing. It can be body language, it can be eye contact, it can be making space for someone to tell a story,” she said.
After the lecture wrapped up, Levy and Pujol took participants into separate workshops to further the discussion and put it into practice.
Tayeba Batool, a Ph.D. student in anthropology working on urban political ecology and spatial politics in Pakistan, attended Pujol’s workshop.
“As an anthropologist, a lot of our methods are based on ethnography, observing what is going on, and how that’s creating certain social truths,” she said. “What brought me to the listening workshop was this exploration of how you observe what is happening in your surroundings. As researchers, we are trying to listen to what people are saying and recording them, but never centering that process of how we’re listening.”
The workshop included writing an “autobiography of the ear,” trying to remember some of the first things a person heard and how their listening informed understanding of their self; then they partnered up and listened to each other in silence.
It felt like an apt point in the semester for Batool to take the workshop.
“I’m doing a lot of writing and reading right now, and to take a break from that and center and reconnect with the elements in my surroundings was so calming and recharging,” she said. “There’s so much overstimulation with news stories, with social media. We all need to slow down, take a pause, and listen to what’s happening instead of immediately trying to process and react.”
Batool feels she can take these lessons and put them to use in her work looking at urban green spaces and urban forests, listening to nature and investigating how trees interact with each other.
“I’m inspired to listen more closely to the voice of nature,” she said.
SNF Paideia director Anderson attended Levy’s workshop, which she says was more deeply personal than she expected it to be. The workshop was co-facilitated by Teya Sepinuck, a member of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s Patient and Family Advisory Council.
They broke into pairs with a prompt asking if there was ever a time they, like the transplant patient, heard something in a way that wasn’t audible. They wrote for a few minutes and then shared with their partner.
“Both sharing the story and then listening to somebody else’s story was very intense,” Anderson said. “I was struck by how wonderful it felt to have somebody listen generously and patiently to something that was important to me, and that my partner was willing to share an important part of their life with me was unexpectedly empowering.”
It became apparent to her how important it is to make space and time to listen to others, she said.
“Listening actively to others is demanding but rewarding work that we could give a lot more attention to, in terms of building skills for that,” she said. “If we did that, it could improve our capacity for meaningful dialogue and our ability to cultivate community and connection.”
Aaron Levy is a senior lecturer in the departments of English and the History of Art in the School of Arts & Sciences, where he has taught since 2002. He also teaches for Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, and the Perelman School of Medicine, and at the Barnes Foundation. A longtime advocate for the healing potential of the arts and humanities, he is the inaugural Director of the Health Ecologies Lab and the Social Justice and Arts Integration Initiative in the School of Social Policy & Practice. He is also special advisor for health and humanities initiatives at Penn Medicine Academy, director of the Penn Medicine Listening Lab, and co-director of Rx/Museum‑projects and initiatives that reflect his dedication to the medical humanities and the development of new approaches to listening and care.
Ernesto Pujol labels himself a “social choreographer,” who creates ephemeral, site-specific installation projects and durational group performances publicly addressing individual and collective repressed memories. His performances often incorporate walking, stillness, silence, and poetic gestures, and typically take place in public spaces of historical significance. Unfolding over periods of hours or even days, Pujol’s work demands a shift in thinking from the public. Pujol was the 2020-21 Keith L. and Katherine S. Sachs Visiting Professor in the Fine Arts department.
Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania where she is also core faculty in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, holds a secondary appointment with the Graduate School of Education, and is a member of the graduate groups in English, Africana Studies, Comparative Literature, and the School of Social Policy and Practice.