The Listening Arts and Social Change…

I’ve been wanting to write for a while, on how I see the relationship between listening and social change. As much as I love dialogue… and as passionate as I am about mediation / facilitation (especially the transformative, non-linear, emergent varieties thereof…)  I also think it’s key to acknowledge that, on its own, facilitation is not going to change the world. On the other hand, I don’t think we are going to create the kind of world we need, without the value that listening can bring…

So here is a story I’ve been telling for a while, that is paradigmatic for me of the deeply synergistic kind of relationship that can exist, between activism and facilitation…

Almost ten years ago now, when I lived in Sonoma County, local agricultural experts became concerned about a tiny pest that was starting to migrate north from Southern California. As the glassy-winged sharpshooter was a potential threat to the vineyards that are a mainstay of the local economy, County experts developed a plan for using airplanes to spray the fields with clouds of pesticides. Problem was, lots of people lived in “tham there hills”, and the toxic substances officials intended to use in their spraying campaign, were also highly toxic to humans…

So concerned local people came together, and attempted to contact the powers-that-be, to initiate a conversation about their concerns. However, the response was underwhelming. Local officials at that point did not seem to be particularly interested in the environmental and health concerns that were being presented…

At which point, concerned people formed something called the “No Spray Action Network”, and began collecting signatures of folks who were willing to do non-violent civil disobedience, the moment that any spraying began….

That’s how I found out about this issue: a friend of mine approached me , asking if I would be willing to sign a pledge, stating that all of the undersigned would be peacefully occupying the major thoroughfare of Santa Rosa, and were willing to be arrested on this matter of conscience, principle, and public health and safety….

While I signed the pledge, along with hundreds of other concerned community members, the planned occupation never took place. As it turned out, once a local newspaper article reported how many people had signed and were willing to be arrested, the No-Spray network suddenly received an invitation, to come talk with local government officials…

And here is where it gets really interesting: according to my sources, the activist folks said something along the lines of, “why thank you, yes, we’d be very willing to come talk with you… and, we will be bringing a trained professional facilitator with us, to ensure that we can all be heard, and that we can all come up with an agreement that will work for everyone.”

While it took several months, many meetings, and countless re-writes, that is exactly what they did.  With all of the various perspectives around the table, folks came up with a pest abatement plan that took environmental and health issues seriously, and that also met the needs of the agricultural community. (Some of the history is still available online, thanks to the internet wayback machine.) Just for clarity’s sake – I was only minimally involved in this story, in the activist role via my signature on the pledge; I was not personally involved in this exemplary facilitation process.

So… activism and facilitation. To my mind, it is clear that we need both… Few people in positions of power are willing to seriously consider perspectives other than their own, unless there is a clear and compelling reason why they would benefit from doing so. In negotiation circles, this is called the BATNA  — the “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”. In other words, parties who don’t feel they have to negotiate, since their BATNA is quite high, thank you very much, are very unlikely to come to the table. Hence, the need for activists to make visible, the “compelling need” to find a better way.

On the other hand, as a committed practitioner of non-violence, I think it is a sort of “moral violence” to believe that “we have the answer” on any particular issue, rather than to engage in a deep, honest, and good-faith dialogue with all who are affected by that issue.

Of course, to make sure that it is a good-faith dialogue, we need to make sure that everyone has a compelling reason to be there, and that the alternatives are clearly less desirable than a solution that truly works for everyone. As we’ve seen too much of lately in our national politics, negotiation doesn’t work, if only one “side” is willing to negotiate! And so we come back to, the clear and irreducible need for activism…

So, there you have it, my view on the interrelationship between the listening arts, and social change. While the listening arts are absolutely indispensable… they are also, especially when issues of  power imbalance are involved, clearly insufficient on their own. However, having both approaches working jointly… the readiness to engage in peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience, AND, the willingness to create a new future together, one that works for ALL… now there’s recipe for hope.


A few recommended resources:

1) Lyn Carson is a pioneer in exploring  the interplay between activism, dialogue and deliberation, and democracy. Here is one of her early articles on this topic.

2) Another excellent academic article by Peter Levine and Rose Marie Nierras,  on the relationship between activism and public deliberation.

3) An essay  I wrote some years ago for the Collective Wisdom Initiative, inspired by Tom Atlee’s book, Tao of Democracy.

4) Just about anything on Tom Atlee’s co-intelligence site!

20 thoughts on “The Listening Arts and Social Change…

  1. Thank you, Rosa! I appreciate your wide and creative viewpoint. I haven’t ever been much of an activist (though I realize it’s about time/it’s never too late) and your musings open a door in my thinking.

    warm wishes!

  2. Rosa, I love the level of PARTICIPATION you are in to write from your personal experience… For me this is basically it: PARTICIPATE IN YOUR EXPERIENCE AND EXPERIENCE YOUR PARTICIPATION, rather than just complain about what is NOT right. or what is wrong. And then we come come to LISTEN and CONVERSE more, just by PARTICIPATING 🙂

    • What an inspiring frame, Marcello… great words to live one’s life by! Realizing our creative agency, in both our internal experiences, and in our external ones!

  3. What a wonderful post, Rosa! As a long-running member of NCDD, I welcome you to consider cross-posting on the NCDD blog as well (and linking back to your new blog). We’d love the quality content, and it could bring some new readers your way.

    Let me know if you’re interested, and I’ll add you as a blog author.

  4. Oh, and I added your RSS feed to the NCDD Facebook page (, where we’re following dozens of our members’ group process-related blogs. So your new posts will be linked to automatically on our facebook page now.

  5. Thanks for this inspiring post, and for starting this blog, Rosa. I really appreciate this great story exemplifying the valuable interface between advocacy and what you call “the listening arts.” I’ve been a fan of the work you and Tom Atlee have done together, and look forward to reading more!

  6. Rosa-jan,
    really appreciate the reminder about the moral violence in the belief that one has the answer.

    I’m wondering if you can unpack a little what you mean by “facilitation won’t change the world.”
    much warmth,

  7. thank you, Susan! it’s great to have you here! And thank you for mentioning Tom’s work… as you can see, I’ve added his blog to my blogroll… he and I have not had the opportunity to work so closely together, since Tao of Democracy days, but I am still a big fan of the CoIntelligence Institute’s work, and do my best to promote it wherever I can…

    and thank you, Peggy! yes, I’ve been wanting to share this story for a while now, and then with everything going on in the world, it felt particularly timely…

    Bill, good to see you here!

    Raffi, what I meant was, “facilitation alone won’t change the world.” What I was speaking to, is that as humans, we often become somewhat starry-eyed when first encountering the power of dialogue, or of good process facilitation…

    and sometimes start thinking that ‘this is the answer to the world’s problems’… and so i was making a point that i see it as a part of the answer, but not the whole of it. (and, as a writer, i was also making a somewhat provocative opening statement, to encourage people to read the rest of the article! 🙂 )

  8. Thank you Rosa for a thought-stimulating post. As I listened to what you are saying, I was thinking that you are describing the power of story through story-tellers, story-listeners, and a carefully held container with the facilitator playing a key role.

    • Hi Birgitt! yes, telling our stories, and having them be heard, is a huge part of what can create shared understanding… and it’s also part of the dynamics that bring people to the table in the first place; if the journalists had not been “telling the story” of all the folks who were signing up to do non-violent direct action, the next steps of coming together in a facilitated process, would not have happened…

  9. Pingback: vTaiwan: activism, deliberative democracy, & social change | The Listening Arts

  10. Pingback: Democracy Rising 9: Facilitating Democratic Conversations, Part 1 - Resilience

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