The courage to be kind starts with how we listen
December 16, 2020
by Charlie Jones and Brigid Russell
“These are not pandemic, but systemic issues that were around long before Covid-19, and there is work to be done to create cultures and leadership with kindness at the centre.” (Thurman, 2020)
It is hard to argue with the value and importance of kindness, and yet it is also hard to find many places in health and care where kindness is consistently practiced and felt by everyone. The case for a culture and leadership underpinned by kindness has been well made elsewhere (West et al., 2017). The question is: how do we create and sustain a culture across health and care which is consistently kind?
There is perhaps a tacit assumption that all those who are in the ‘caring professions’ will necessarily be kind in all aspects of their everyday work, and we don’t doubt that this is the intention in the vast majority. But, as the conversations woven through “The courage to be kind”, the recent report from the Carnegie UK Trust (Thurman, 2020), demonstrate, we need to be a bit more careful about our interpretation of kindness, and our expectations that it is mainly something which happens in one-to-one care-giving relationships. To make real a culture of kindness and compassionate leadership, kindness needs to be at the heart of every interaction, every relationship, and integral to the processes and structures of the organisation and the wider context.
Being kind is obvious, isn’t it? Yet there is a challenge in how we define kindness, and how we articulate the practice of kindness. Small acts of kindness may add moments of joy or connection to a culture of kindness, but they will not enable or sustain it. To sustain a culture of kindness it is about how we nurture and practice both ‘relational’ and ‘radical’ kindness (Julia Unwin, 2018). A culture of kindness is not about being nice to each other; rather it is about how we develop ways of working with each other which are based on mutual respect, candour, and compassion.
At the level of one-to-one and small group interactions, it is about the practice of relational kindness in how we balance being frank with each other, and speaking truthfully with love and kindness. At the community and systemic levels, it is about the practice of radical kindness.
“A desire for peace without truthfulness is worthless and does not bring about peace; without love truth has no effect because it is not heard.” Quaker Faith and Practice 24.34
This means that we are able to call out the failings and faults in the system and to involve all those who can, together, find the better solutions. The implications of kindness are “radical and disruptive” for public policy and public services, as Sarah Davidson notes in the Foreword to the Carnegie UK Trust report (Thurman, 2020). For example, it may mean shifting away from the ‘delivery’ of services at the acute end of care in the ‘doing to and for’ way it has always been done, appreciating much more about the wider determinants of health, and deciding instead to move more resources upstream and to create conditions in which people in communities feel able to help themselves, and supported where needed.
So, where to start with creating cultures of kindness? We believe that the ‘courage to be kind’ starts in how we listen to each other, and to ourselves. It is about going well beyond a transactional way of working with each other, beyond how our protocols tell us to work. If we are going to develop relational and radical kindness, then the crucial foundations include how we listen to and understand each other, how we remain curious about others’ perspectives, and get past some of our own preconceptions and assumptions.
Spaces for Listening
The shared experience of living through Covid-19 has not created the need for more spaces for listening; we already needed more space, and more listening. However, during Covid-19, the feelings of loss, the experience of uncertainty, the exhaustion, and the unrelenting workload, have combined to emphasise the value of such spaces. Spaces in which we can say out loud how we are feeling, what is going on for us, and be listened to without interruption or judgement.
What do spaces for listening have to do with creating cultures of kindness? We believe that the act of listening can be the most simple and powerful demonstration of relational kindness.
“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” (David Augsburger, 1982)
When we ‘just’ listen, without jumping in to ‘fix’ or find a solution, we create space for kindness, and we start to build mutual understanding and trust. Listening is fundamental to building relationships based on trust; and trusting relationships are at the heart of a culture of kindness. More spaces for listening are not the answer on their own, but they provide an important foundation on which to build – a starting point.
Over the past seven months, we have experimented with #SpacesForListening, a simple, lightly-structured process which creates a space in which we each have an equal opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings. It is about starting where we are, and sharing what is going on for each of us. We do not introduce ourselves by our job titles; we all participate as people. The equality of time and the structure of turn-taking contributes to creating the sense of psychological safety and open sharing; the choice of participating is about taking a risk, treating each other as adults, and taking responsibility for our relationships with others.
It enables us to connect as people, first and foremost, and to get past hierarchy and formal power. There is something empowering and levelling in sharing and understanding more about each other’s experiences, as was also true for the participants in “The courage to be kind” conversations. In this way, this quality of listening is a practical contribution to developing both a culture of kindness, and our collective leadership.
The focus of the space is on listening and connection. Each of us experiences the restorative quality of listening both as the speaker, who is listened to without interruption, and also as the listener. As speaker, we can choose to articulate what is happening for us, how we are feeling in this moment, and we have the opportunity to reach some new insights by ‘thinking out loud’. As listener, we hear each other’s stories as well as how each person chooses to speak about what is happening for them, and in so doing we are able to notice things which resonate with, or differ from, our own experiences. We find, above all, that we have more experiences in common as human beings.
People who have participated in #SpacesForListening have talked compellingly about the sense of liberation in not needing to jump in and solve someone else’s issues, or to take on responsibility. We have been struck by the power of listening without distraction, and derived a sense of calm and insight from the quality of presence.
It is not a ‘wellbeing’ intervention, although undoubtedly it contributes to our sense of wellbeing in an active and empowering way. It does this by providing a space in which we are able to share and understand more about our own feelings of loss, fear, exhaustion, as well our sense of hope and possibility. Further it enables each of us to develop our mutual respect and understanding, and in so doing it starts to build a foundation for more open, candid and collaborative relationships.
“When thinking about their own wellbeing, the things that participants valued most were protected spaces for reflection (like those provided within leadership programmes and by this project); and the sense that they were listened to by senior management decision makers”. (Thurman, 2020)
To date, we have experimented with the approach with ‘random’ groups of people from many different organisations, and from across the UK, Ireland, Australia, USA, Canada, and India, who have chosen to participate in #SpacesForListening. This has led some participants to question whether the impact of the experience relates mainly to the ‘comfort of strangers’, that the group has no shared history or preconceptions. However, we are gathering examples of people who, having experienced #SpacesForListening, are now experimenting with the approach organically within their own teams and organisations, based on the core principles of equality of listening and voluntary participation. Early indications are that the experience is as impactful within teams and groups of people who work together across the same organisation.
We know that we need to try different ways of seeing and doing things in health and care. That means we need to have different kinds of conversations across the system which might feel unsettling, uncomfortable, and difficult. We believe that spaces for listening provide a foundation for a different quality of conversation, based on relational kindness, in which we feel able to speak truthfully, and from a place of kindness, connection, and love. And that feels like a powerful way of starting to create and sustain a culture of kindness which is both relational and radical.
This is a guest blog written by Charlie Jones and Brigid Russell, which responds to the Trust’s work on kindness and the recent report, The courage to be kind. Charlie is a clinical psychologist and Brigid is a coach and leadership consultant: together they have been exploring and developing ideas around creating spaces for listening.
Augsburger, D. (1982). Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard: How to hear and how to be heard in equal communication.
Thurman, B. (2020). The courage to be kind: reflecting on the role of kindness in the healthcare response to Covid-19. Dunfermline: Carnegie UK Trust
Unwin, J. (2018) Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy. Dunfermline: Carnegie UK Trust
West, M., Eckert, R., Collins, B., & Chowla, R. (2017). Caring to change: How compassionate leadership can stimulate innovation in healthcare. London: The King’s Fund.
 For more on the approach and the experience in practice in the period May-October 2020 see: Charlie Jones & Brigid Russell (November 2020) Spaces for Listening https://brigidrussell43.medium.com/spaces-for-listening-8c597c1f52a2 and #SpacesForListening on Twitter.