How to Practise Radical Listening
The Montréal-based mindfulness facilitator Joanna Chevalier shares a guide for embracing active listening in your relationships.
Photos—Never Was Average
Cover photo—Abel H.
In 2017 I decided to create a safe space where women can share with, support, and be vulnerable with each other. I called these monthly meetings The Sisterhood, and together with 20 other women from different backgrounds and ages, we talked about the challenges Black women face in our society today. Sitting in this tight-knit circle, we listened and shared without judgment. Though I didn’t have a term for it at the time, it was a manifestation of what I now call “radical listening.”
My mother, too, came to support the event and share her experiences with younger women who were able to relate to her. The participants who weren’t women of colour embraced the lived experiences of Black women while holding space for them to express themselves freely. I witnessed a magical moment where a group of women who didn’t know each other practised radical listening without realizing it.
To listen is an active verb. It takes practice and must be exercised with intention.
Radical listening does not exist without mindfulness. We start by listening to ourselves, because self-awareness is the basis for empathy and helps us see others for who they are without forming biased ideas.
To use mindfulness is to practise curiosity, non-judgment, and honesty during your internal thought process in the present moment. Rather than trying to analyze the experience of suffering, approach it in a spirit of exploration and patience. I believe curiosity clarifies what is going on inside of us, allowing us to disidentify with negative emotions and to be more insightful and compassionate with ourselves and with each other.
Why is radical listening so powerful?
When I started my journey, I quickly realized that radical listening was something I always knew how to do but lacked the words to define. When I was young and going through difficult situations, I would take long walks to calm down. When you grow up in an environment that doesn’t have access to tools like this, you instinctively do what you think you should do. I now believe that we all have the tools of mindfulness within us, but society presents these concepts as unattainable.
In 2019 I had the opportunity to complete my training as a mindfulness facilitator, where I was formally exposed to the practice that was already so familiar to me. The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root.” The work of radical listening is to focus intently on the person talking while removing our personal biases and filters. It helps you to honour other people’s lived experiences, thoughts, and feelings. This practice strengthens relationships, deepens your understanding of your surroundings, and improves your overall ability to be fully present in your life.
To me, radical listening goes beyond just listening with your ears. When you intentionally practise radical listening, you listen with all of your senses and give your full attention to the person speaking.
To listen in this way, it helps to concentrate on your breathing, which brings you into the present moment. You can also pay attention to the feelings in your body or other sensations like touch, feel, and taste.
Although there are many places it can be used, if you’re sharing in a large group, it can take some practice and a facilitator to guide the interactions. When you are two, be sure that you are both in the proper mindset to be available to the other person. Whether you use it during hard times or simply to better communicate and understand the world around you, radical listening makes you present and intentional in your relationships.
The golden rules of active listening
During the Sisterhood gatherings, radical listening is often a tactic we apply to help others listen without judgment. When in a group, I like to use the circle setting to aid in the flow of energies. This way, everyone can see each other, which helps build trust and authentic connections.
Set the tone: Create a calm and comfortable ambiance: some flowers for good air, soft music for intimacy, maybe avoid wine for the more difficult conversations. Make sure everyone is at ease and ready to be present. To remain calm when you feel like reacting or when intrusive thoughts manifest, focus on your breathing. And keep an open mind.
Watch the clock: Everyone has the opportunity to share for a maximum time of five minutes. While someone is expressing themselves, be silent. Resist the urge to reply as you will have your chance to speak up once the allotted time is over.
Learn to listen: Listen to yourself. Do what feels right to you that day. Live your emotions and follow your thoughts. If you feel like simply sitting in silence during your allotted time, that is okay too. Also, listen to others in silence. Give non-verbal feedback to indicate that you are listening (smiling, eye contact, nodding, etc.).
Express empathy: When it’s your time to respond to what someone has said, begin your sentence with “I appreciate you sharing this moment with me.” Share for two minutes.
You’ve read all about it, and now I want to show you step by step how you can create a radical listening moment:
Step 1: Find a quiet and intimate space. Add relaxing music for ambiance.
Step 2: Choose a theme or big question to orient the session. (If you have a questionnaire card game like We’re Not Really Strangers, that is perfect.)
Step 3: Define your rules.
Step 4: Whether this is in a group or a duo, pick the person who will start the moment.
Step 5: Use a timer. We suggest five minutes of listening and two minutes of feedback.
Step 6: Take a deep breath before beginning.
Step 7: (For the person starting) Share for five minutes. Speak of your lived experiences using the pronoun “I.”
Step 8: (For the person listening) When it’s your time to share your moment of empathy, begin your sentence with “I appreciate you sharing this moment with me.” Share for two minutes.
Step 9: Start the process over with another speaker.
It’s a liberating feeling to allow yourself and others to think and feel openly. In light of my experiences, I meet radical listening with open arms because I know it can move social mountains and uncover parts of ourselves we couldn’t imagine. I hope you apply the practice to your life and that it helps you forge a more meaningful relationship with the people around you.
References and recommended readings
Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment—and Your Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn Ph.D.
The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hanh
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown
Joanna Chevalier is the co-founder of Never Was Average. She describes herself as a cultural worker. She looks to unite art and culture in service of empowering all people. Combining her skills as a mindfulness facilitator adopting a multidisciplinary approach, she initiates meaningful conversations and projects not only with good intention, but with social impact. Her mission? To encourage people to transcend labels through self-exploration and connection with larger communities.