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Podcast: The USA's Listen First Project

PEARCE GODWIN once worked at the heart of the United States political system. But as his country became more divided by politics, he left his job to try and find ways to bridge these divides. In this How To Build Community episode, Pearce tells us why he started the "Listen First Project", and how each time we properly listen to people with whom we disagree, we help improve the health of our communities. Here's some highlights from the episode...

Pearce’s career began in politics. He worked as a political consultant in Washington DC in the United States, but a trip to Uganda in 2013 gave him a new perspective of the “very hot temperature of rhetoric” and “tremendous amount of rancour and discord” back home in the USA. "It just felt more inane than it ever had to me.” Pearce started to think about the importance of seeking common ground rather than focusing on differences. While on a bus between Uganda and Tanzania, he wrote a blog post explaining his ideas, and was surprised by the "incredible resonance" it found. “This simple idea was really capturing people's attention.” This was when he decided to launch the Listen First Project.

The cornerstone of the Listen First Project is a simple pledge: “I will listen first to understand.” In conversations with peers, with family members, with those who hold different views from our own, this straightforward guideline is one that could change the way we relate to one another. In Pearce’s words, "we seek to remind people that there is hope, by just starting those new conversations that bridge divides. We want to move from this paradigm of 'us vs them' towards a 'me and you', that personal connection.”

Pearce gave some examples of the power of listening. Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in a religious extremist family who promoted bigotry and hatred of groups including the LGBTQ and Jewish communities. But through interactions on social media with people who were willing to listen and ask questions about who she was as a person, she was able set aside those hateful views. While social media plays a role in cementing the divides that separate us, stories like this show that it can also be a force for good. Pearce believes that “all of us can address some person in our lives across some difference and some misunderstanding with a commitment to listen first.”

For Pearce, the most effective way of making change is to start at the grassroots level. “The vast majority of successful social movements have been from the bottom up.” Listen First Leaders are people with some cultural influence, such as politicians, who can spread the word to a wide audience. But in order for cultural change to happen, conversations between ordinary individuals happening on a large scale is Pearce’s aim. “Those interpersonal relationships - that's going to be the leading edge in transforming culture.” To promote a bottom-up social movement, the National Conversation Project brings together more than 160 organisations doing similar work to Listen First, “reaching further and impacting greater than any one organisation could on its own”.

Pearce shared his top ten tips for a Listen First conversation. "So many of these are a deep challenge,” he reminded us, “even for those of us who do this for a living.”

1. Allow others the courtesy of silence while they are speaking

2. Maintain a calm and respectful tone when you are speaking

3. Come to the conversation with an open mind ready to learn and grow

4. Listen to others as you want them to listen to you

5. Listen to and consider others' views before sharing your own

6. Be present and curious rather than thinking of how to respond

7. Fully engage free of distractions

8. Restate what you heard to clarify understanding

9. Ask thoughtful and respectful questions that are free from judgement, assumption or bias

10. Seek to discover common interest and areas of agreement by focusing more on why than what, on personal experiences than positions.

For those who want to get involved with Listen First Project, it’s easy. The first step is to sign their pledge "to listen first to understand". Pearce also suggests having more intentional conversations, welcoming those with diverse perspectives. “Once you get diverse people together, there's a lot of power there to solve commonly-felt problems in the community... or around the world.” To share your thoughts or ideas on the project, use the #ListenFirst hashtag on Twitter or email

Listen to the full podcast here.


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