By Jennifer Brandel.
An interview with Margaret Wheatley
It’s an absolute thrill to be able to connect the incredible mind and work of Margaret Wheatley with the world of journalism. Before we get to meet and learn from Margaret, there’s some backstory required.
In the mid 2000s, as I was learning how to be a journalist, I also became certified as a healer in alternative medicine. I came into that line of work partly out of curiosity, but mostly because I needed to communicate with a family member who was no longer accessible through more common modes of interacting with the world. It was a strange confluence: the reporter brain of questioning and fact-checking everything, with the healer brain of trusting that some knowledge and wisdom cannot be accessed, grasped or verified through the intellect.
In holding these two approaches in my daily experience, I began to see both the differences and the overlap. During days practicing journalism, I often felt extractive – that I was interacting with people on my terms, approaching them to pry out information for a story that they didn’t necessarily volunteer to tell in the world. I did my best to be as present and non-transactional as possible, but the very frame of why I was speaking them was so I could take something from them to share with others. Being on deadline, with a need to produce a coherent, neatly packaged story, limited the degree to which I could responsibly veer off into other topics with sources, listen longer, and reveal my own humanity and empathy back to them. It was an unequal trade.
In stark relief were the hours practicing the healing work. It involved a lot of techniques and practices that my reporter brain could not understand: from using hand mudras, having people put on different colored glasses, dinging tuning forks and muscle-testing. I diligently followed the instructions as I was taught, sometimes feeling absurd, trying to quiet the inner critic and just be open to seeing what happened. Did people leave feeling better than they did coming in? Did their expression, way they held themselves, or their mood palpably improve? Did they experience a breakthrough, or breakdown, or remember a long-buried memory that allowed them to rewrite their own narrative? Yes. Every single time.
So what was the difference? Both of these practices are about storytelling, truthfinding and had at the core, a practice of listening intently. Journalism, at least the quick-turnaround reporting I was doing, revolves around me or the newsroom deciding the story, and then finding the people to take information from, and share with the rest of the world. Often it was a focus on something wrong in the world, which left me and likely those who listened or read it feeling disheartened.
In contrast, healing revolved around a person electing to come to me, with their individual needs as the priority, and with the goal of discovering new information about themselves so they may tell a more truthful story and direct their lives toward new possibilities. Even when the sessions I had as a healer uncovered traumatic moments, and included heaving sobs and deep physical discomfort, the person I was working with and I always left one another feeling more whole, connected, and yes, even healed.
Throughout the year or so I practiced healing arts, I kept asking myself: what was the secret? Why did it always seem to work? Was it the glasses? The tuning forks? The endless charts with emotions that I’d muscle test to find what feeling was being repressed or overexpressed? I couldn’t tell you, even now. But what I feel very confident about, is that the power of deeply listening to another person, with full attention, and without judgment or an agenda, is one of the most profoundly healing acts a person can provide to another.
Recently I went on an internet expedition, looking to find research and proof (journalist brain dominating) that what I experienced in this form of listening had empirical evidence, and hard data behind it. Afterall, I named my company Hearken, which means to listen, and give respectful attention. I wanted to dig into these ideas again.
One of the first results in my search was an article by Margaret Wheatley, called Listening as Healing, published in December 2001 in the Shambhala Sun magazine. She wrote the piece just days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In trying to locate hope and a way toward healing, Wheatley wrote,
“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. If we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available. Whatever life we have experienced, if we can tell our story to someone who listens, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances.”
I devoured her article, finding passages I wanted to print out, highlight and paste to my walls, such as:
“Why is being heard so healing? I don’t know the full answer to that question, but I do know it has something to do with the fact that listening creates relationship. We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity. Everything takes form from relationships, be it subatomic particles sharing energy or ecosystems sharing food. In the web of life, nothing living lives alone.”
My reporter brain needed to know who this woman was, and how she got to affirming and so eloquently proclaiming these truths. Margaret J. Wheatley (sometimes known as “Meg”) is one of those multi-hyphenate people who is expert and accomplished in a variety of disciplines. She holds a doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard, a masters in Media Ecology from NYU, worked as a professor teaching in graduate business programs, written nine books and hundreds of articles, co-founded the Berkana Institute, and has even interviewed the Dalai Lama. (Reporter-brain that requires references and expertise to feel more trusting of information, satisfied!)
For this Year of Listening celebration that the News Integrity Initiative is hosting, I suddenly had the perfect excuse to call Margaret and learn from her long-lens perspective about what professional listeners who call themselves journalists can do at this very strange moment in history and our profession.
Before we get into actionable insights, first it must be noted that Margaret is no Pollyanna. She firmly believes civilization is in a stage of collapse. In stating this, she was matter-of-fact, pointing to a well-established pattern throughout history of societies going through natural cycles of creation and destruction. Accepting this status, she acknowledges, is painful, but that being aware of what’s possible given such strong negative dynamics is ultimately helpful. She cautions against thinking that change on an industry level in journalism is possible at this juncture, and certainly not from the top-down. All effective shifts come bottom-up. And all change has to start small, on the individual level.
Which is where you, reader, comes in. What can we, while living through a civilization in decline, and in an industry facing such complex and huge crises beyond any single person or company’s control, actually do?
Margaret Wheatley says we can listen, and that the very act of listening is “revolutionary.” Wheatley points to listening being very much on the decline. “Nobody listens. We’re totally distracted. There is research that shows if a website doesn’t respond to you in less than half a second, we leave it. To me, we’re frantic to get what we need. The Internet has really changed our brains. We’re very good at scanning and flipping now, and we’ve lost the capacity for deep listening.”
What makes this all the more alarming is the fact that listening is key to deriving meaning in life. Listening is how we learn from others, synthesize and understand who we are and importantly, why things matter. So without enough quality listening, life too easily slips into meaninglessness, leading to stress, anxiety, and at the extreme, suicide. She says the less people listen, the easier it becomes to forget how to do it.
For Journalists, where listening is such a huge part of our jobs, we face obstacles in doing the kind of deep listening that leads to personal insight and healing for those we’re listening to. We’re at the mercy of the system we operate in, including the format of the story, the voracious “beasts to feed,” which can show up as quotas for how many stories of a certain length to file, how many tweets to schedule, or editing out what provides more nuance and meaning for what our editors find punchier or more important. Wheatley says she’s become very cautious of journalists because of the very system we’re locked into. “People would feel better about talking to journalists if they got past the desire for soundbites and just picking out what seems juicy, and really deeply listened to someone.”
Her saying this struck a familiar, painfully dissonant chord. So how can journalists listen without being extractive given the demands of the job and the products we have to create to sustain the work? To this question, Wheatley gives tough, honest medicine,
“It will take a lot of courage and fearlessness to make a choice about how you want to succeed in your profession. Do you want to have moral integrity? Do you want to stand up for the profession, and change it? You recognize where it’s at now is pretty abysmal. You have to decide if you’re going to be one of the people who is going to do your very best to change it.”
Her saying this makes my mind spin to search for those who are already doing the work to change it. To that I see groups like Free Press and their News Voices program, which connects communities and journalists in more intimate, vulnerable and humane ways, or City Bureau in Chicago, which positions the public as producers who can contribute acts of journalism to a community’s collective information needs, or Spaceship Media, which helps newsrooms connect people to one another and creates space for deep, transformative listening and dialogue. These groups are breaking through the extractive models of traditional journalism and creating the opportunity for deep listening that isn’t solely focused on creating a news content to sell.
This work to listen differently and deeply is all the more important in a moment in history in which people are becoming more politicized, divided, more fearful of one another, and less willing to hear someone who looks or thinks differently than they do. Wheatley says this time we’re living in creates a “… cycle that descends into fear, and people can’t have the conversations the way we used to. It’s how self-protection becomes the norm.” Self-protection then creates separation, and being out of relationship with others again leads to all manner of negative outcomes, for the health of individuals and for society.
So how do we manage the challenges of this moment in practical ways? Wheatley advises journalists take the time to reconnect with what drew them to the profession in the first place.
- What were you trying to accomplish when you decided this line of work was for you?
- When have you had the experience of doing the kind of work that fulfilled those desires?
- What were those stories, and what about them, or the making of them, or the effect of them, made you proud?
It’d be worth taking a few minutes to pause and actually answer those questions right now, if you’re in a context that would allow for it. Reconnecting to your purpose, and dissociating for a moment with the outer environment that determines how that purpose is expressed, can show gaps for where your own agency and integrity can emerge.
From the perspective of the source, someone a journalist is interviewing, Wheatley recommends journalists act in such a way where a source can say yes to these three questions:
- Do I feel respected in the moment in which I was interviewed?
- Do I feel respected by the way I was represented in the story when it came out?
- (Which leads to …) Do I respect the journalist?
Wheatley has a lot of compassion for the difficulty of performing journalism, especially right now. She knows the pressures of time, speed, money, marketing and survival alongside the political attacks on the profession. But once we acknowledge those forces, she urges journalists to figure out how to “make room for telling a story more truthfully, more fully and more respectfully.”
Grappling with questions like this alone is a recipe for staying stuck. So Wheatley also advises that journalists who are committed to listening deeply, in ways that are less extractive, and perhaps even healing, find one another for mutual support. It’s difficult not to get dragged down by reality, so having others to lean on and turn to can reinforce the kind of change that will add up to make a difference. To that end, if you’re reading this and not yet part of the Gather community of practice, you’ll find a lot of kindred spirits there.
I hope Wheatley’s cautions and advice leave you more with a feeling of possibility and focus, than with despair. Individual actions do matter, and they do add up. I’ll end with a truth she uttered that feels more urgent to remember and live by in these tumultuous times for our professional and personal lives, “We have to do what’s right even if it does not succeed.”
Additional reading, writing by Margaret Wheatley:
“Stop, Look, Listen, Think” image + campaign by The Stone Twins