SLU news

Listen better to each other – as a pathway to sustainable societies

Published: 12 June 2024
Small white paper notes with short texts lying on a round plate. Photo.

Professors Åsa Berggren and Keri Facer work together to develop methods for more democratic communication. The core of their joint project is to improve our ability to truly listen to each other and take in the perspectives of others, on the road to a more sustainable society.

– Today, communication is often about asserting one’s own opinions. From the very start, people know what they what to get out of a discussion; and that is to win a war of words. But we’re really bad at listening to each another.

Åsa Berggren, Professor at the Department of Ecology at SLU, wants to change that, in the exploratory and interdisciplinary project Society for transformative conversations.

In a sense, it all started with Åsa listening to what she calls "the best lunch lecture ever", with Professor Keri Facer from the University of Bristol. Then, the subject was “The democratic university of the future”. Now, together, they want to contribute to a society where we talk, listen and work in a better way than we usually do today. The project is ongoing while Keri Facer holds the August T Larsson visiting professorship at SLU.

Photo of Åsa Berggren.

 The core of the project is to test whether we can come up with a scientific method for a new form of discussion, says Åsa Berggren. Genuine, democratic discussions with more voices, where we really listen and get involved in each other's stories.

So, today, who is not being heard, and not being listened to, in important societal discussions? Åsa Berggren gives some clear examples: indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, and children and young people.

– Instead, those who already have strong voices are often heard in many different contexts. Positions are pushed to the extreme, and many don't even seem interested in trying to understand other people’s points of view. But that's not how a democratic society should work!

On the lookout for commitment and emotions

A first meeting with the ambition of creating transformative meetings was held in the autumn of 2023. (Read more here: You never know the consequences of one conversation.) 14 people with varying skills gathered for a one-day workshop on the food and landscapes of the future. The discussions were recorded, and now analyzes of what aroused the participants' commitment and emotions are underway. An important start to an important project, says Åsa.

– Because academia is a pretty tough world, just think about how positions are financed! The built-in system flaw is the competitive mindset. Today, awarded researchers don’t need to be good at seeing other people's perspectives or looking ahead. They mainly listen when what is said provides an opportunity to highlight their own research.

– But I am convinced that the fastest way to a sustainable society is for us to learn to listen to each other better. Because everything that we neglect now, we must try to correct in the future! For example, if we don't listen to those who highlight the importance of ecosystem services for the whole of society, we will all have huge problems in the future, says Åsa Berggren.

Vulnerability and curiosity

Transformative conversations change the participants. A little or a lot, and in ways that no one could have predicted, because the conversations create something bigger than the participants themselves, says Keri Facer, who in addition to the visiting professorship at SLU is Professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol.

Photo of Keri Facer.

 We slow down and make sure we understand each other, in ways that sometimes expose tensions that have been hidden under wordings that we interpret differently. In transformative conversations, we dare to be vulnerable and curiously receptive to new ideas and perspectives. It feels comfortable to let go of old views and perceptions that may no longer serve us well.

When we speak, Keri has just returned to the UK from a holiday trip. This is her home base; but her contacts with Sweden have long been close and fruitful.

– I have worked at several Swedish universities over the years. Actually, it may be that it’s sometimes easier to spark an interest for new ideas and points of view if you yourself come from somewhere else.

Keri says that she has long been in love with Sweden – a country where she perceives people as eager to really get involved in honest attempts to do something new.

The art of listening should be a subject in school

The state of the world is by many measures bleak in 2024. Democracy's position globally is declining. There are more refugees than ever before. Climate change presents humanity with ever new trials and challenges, and the ongoing wars can spread a sense of hopelessness. The conversations that rule the world seem anything but transformative. But Keri Facer sees a different world, too.

– I can see the present as exciting, challenging and brightening. Today, many people are very aware of what does not work, and of the dangers that threaten us. The alternatives to transformative conversations manifest as stagnant worlds of thought, missed opportunities, conflict, isolationism and protectionism. But many transformative conversations are already happening around the world, and they need to spread everywhere; both at the universities and in politics and in the rest of society. Our mission as academics is to make this visible.

How then is it possible to live as you learn? Keri Facer laughs.

– When I started working a lot with transformative conversations, of course I talked about it at home with my partner. Then he said "But you're really bad at listening!" So, we all need to work on this, in our private lives as well as at our jobs!

And not least, says Keri Facer, much work remains to turn academic environments into welcoming places for transformative conversations.

– I would really like the subject of "listening" to be on the schedule of all academic courses! Teachers and students all need to listen, both to each other and to the world outside. We need to understand how transformative conversations occur; and how we take advantage of the ideas that emerge. Part of that understanding is about interdisciplinarity; but also about relationships, beliefs, ethics, culture and philosophy.

Transformative conversations are important for sustainability

Are transformative conversations even extra important at universities like SLU, with the motto "Science and education for sustainable life"?

– In a sense, yes. Universities like SLU that focus on sustainability must become good at transformative conversations, because we are trying to figure out how to live differently in this world! We need to build relationships, alliances and networks. A great place to start, is in small social contexts where we talk to – and not least, listen to! - each other in new ways.

– And maybe staff and students at SLU can even learn something from how the animals we do research about listen to each other?

Ripples on the water

The project around transformative communication runs for three years. But how could an interdisciplinary project like this affect the discussion climate at a university, or in society? How will it be possible to measure how well the project turned out? Keri Facer’s approach is - let's see what comes out of it.

– We boldly call the project "Society for transformative conversations"; much like how we here in Great Britain in the 18th century created things like "Society for the study of animals" and "Royal society for science". Now, just like then, you have to start somewhere, and with each step, new opportunities open up. A vision could perhaps be to establish physical buildings, "Institutes for Listening", in as many places as possible?

Professor Åsa Berggren, her partner in the project, agrees.

– This is indeed a small-scale project considering the challenge, but it still leaves ripples on the water.

In autumn 2024, a larger, open forum is planned for; with perhaps up to a hundred participants, who will contribute with themselves and their life experiences. There are also plans to offer training for SLU employees who themselves want to develop into discussion leaders in the future. This would ensure that transformative conversations continue within and outside of SLU also beyond the project's end date.

– This is to do something. It is difficult to measure success in a research project like this. But I think it will be a great thing if only a few of the participants will get a different view of the world and themselves through discussions with others.

Text: Ylva Carlqvist Warnborg, SLU Future Food

Creating Living Knowledge: Lessons learned

What are the benefits and risks of large interdisciplinary collaborations? In this lunch webinar Keri Facer, professor of the Educational and Social Futures program at the University of Bristol, shares her experiences from the UK's Connected Communities Programme.