By Emily Kasriel, Head of Editorial Partnerships and Special Projects, BBC World Service

27 July 2022 - 11:30

Woman sitting at a table talking to a man opposite her
Practising deep listening means tuning into empathy, dialling down the urge to judge and listening in a way that other people’s points of view are understood  ©

British Council

Listening is something most of us do every single day of our lives – you’d think we’d be very good at it, but do we deeply listen? Sometimes we're guilty of hearing what we want to hear, quickly discounting another’s opinion if it doesn’t fit neatly with our own. 

The British Council has partnered with the BBC World Service to produce Crossing Divides around the Globe.  The project aims to train young people to listen and understand other people with very different perspectives, views and opinions. Here Emily Kasriel, leader of the project, explains how we can all become better listeners:

Deep listening can be used by everyone, from family members or colleagues working through issues, to politicians trying to understand what opponents think about issues of national or global importance that are polarising communities.

Practising deep listening means tuning into empathy, dialling down the urge to judge people who are different from oneself and listening in a way that other people’s points of view are heard and understood. It imparts important skills that will make anyone a better listener: empathy, silence and becoming aware of our judgements. Describing deep listening, one project participant said: “You’re not listening for things that you have to defend, you’re actually listening for things that you can learn."

The project was piloted in Lebanon, where it helped local people find common ground with each other, in a society riven by sectarian divides and bitter years of conflict. People taking part in the project said they felt that they were being heard, helping them to feel recognised and understood, which opened communication between communities. 

A thousand young people from 119 countries around the world took part in June 2022, facilitated by 60 British Council staff who had been trained the previous month.  All the participants have greatly improved their listening skills, which will prove invaluable in their working and personal lives. 

93% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that following the training they feel more likely to engage with someone who has a different opinion from them

They have also had a chance to be listened to and heard, which research shows can improve wellbeing. This is because we all feel accepted, valued and more connected to others when we sense that we are being truly listened to, and the person listening to us doesn’t have to agree with us for those benefits to be enjoyed. 

The project is also an opportunity for participants to feel the benefit of stepping outside their own ‘echo chamber’. Echo chambers are created by our natural inclination to seek out people and opinions, in person and online, that we agree with, so we mainly see and hear information and opinions that accord with our own, reinforcing our own worldview. 

Not surprisingly this leads us to think our views are definitively correct, so we become disconcerted or even angry when we encounter perspectives that our worldview suggests are wrong or incorrect, because they are at odds with our own echo chamber. 

70% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that the training has changed the way they will communicate with others on social media

Deep listening can help people with polarised views on big issues, such as immigration, climate change, tackling the Covid pandemic and Brexit, actually hear and understand each other’s perspectives, and realise that it is possible to disagree and not be enemies, through recognising our common humanity.

As one participant said, “I hadn't really seen such contrasting opinions peacefully and happily coexist, positively coexist, in the same room before. And it was a really exciting experience.”

Steps to deep listening

• Before you start your conversation, be present, eliminate any distractions and get ready to listen without interrupting. Become aware of any judgements, and put these aside, keep your challenges or ideas for solutions to yourself – for now. Get ready to be empathetic, curious, and humble. You’ll have the chance to explain how you feel when it is your turn to speak, for now you are in listening mode, and you want to really hear and understand.

• When the other person has finished speaking, leave a little space, perhaps even count to ten. Then tell the other person the very core of what you have heard and understood, including the emotions they have expressed in words or through their body language. 

• Then ask them if you have understood them correctly. You are not agreeing with the other person’s point of view here, just checking your own understanding.

• If not, ask them to clarify for you.

• Continue this process until they say that you have truly heard and understood their point of view.

A participant described the process: "I learned to listen more, not to judge but to try and understand, and to give time for the others to communicate the messages that they wanted to. Then to give feedback to check that I really understand what they want me to know.”

One teacher who took part in the Lebanon pilot felt very unhappy about Syrian refugees coming to her country. Now, to the surprise of her family, she works one day a week at a school for Syrian refugees and she describes her previous views as intolerant.

Deep listening really is a way to build bridges between communities and could be a key to helping us all create a more tolerant, compassionate and peaceful world. 

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Why is the BBC partnering with the British Council for this project? Tim Davie, BBC Director General, said: “The ability of the BBC to air diverse views and facilitate open debate is central to our role in a divided world.  Training young people from 100 countries with deep listening skills and sharing some of their journeys on the BBC can encourage many more people to take part in respectful challenging conversations”.

And for the British Council?  The British Council supports peace and prosperity by building connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and countries worldwide. Scott McDonald, the organisation’s CEO said: “One of the biggest global challenges we face is division. The deep listening training gets to the heart of what we do at the British Council, by providing opportunities for people to step out of their echo chambers, to cross divides, and build trust and understanding.”

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