25 October, 2008

Conversation with the Planetwalker

Wonderful meeting with John Francis, the Planetwalker who spent 17 years in silence while he was walking across the US and Latin America. I met John originally at TED2008 and it was a pleasure to catch up in London, where he is on a short visit for the launch of his book. John is a gentle man who has achieved amazing things: during his long walk he took a degree and a PhD in land resorces and then taught at degree level, all without saying a word.

In the 22 years that John walked, and the 17 years that he refrained from speaking, he found a gentle yet potent wisdom about our way of living. His message is simple but challenging: saving the world starts and ends with respecting ourselves and the people immediately around us - for if we care about others, we will behave in ways that don't create bad consequences for them, or for the planet. John is now United Nations Goodwill Ambassador to the world's grassroots communities, and a leading figure in the global environmental movement. he's also an inspiration to us all, and I heartily recommend his book Planetwalker.

Naturally with my sound-based perspective, what fascinates me most about John's remarkable story is how he was transformed by his elective silence. Within 24 hours of deciding not to speak, he discovered that he had never truly listened. With no possibility of answering people, he found that instead of planning his next remark, or judging his degree of agreement or disagreement, he was simply listening. For most people, the silent part of conversation isn't really silent at all: their internal voice is judging, assessing, cross-indexing, selecting potential replies, or working out how to impress others or to win the contest that often underpins conversation.

In my book I write about the different qualities of listening that exist, and distinguish three dimensions: active-passive, empatheric-critical, and reductive-expansive. Active listening is designed to make the other feel heard, using techniques such as reflection and summarising; passive listening is non-judgmental, akin to the way we listen to music. Empathetic listening is designed to make the other feel emotionally understood; critical listening has conscious filters in place. Reductive listening is selective, discarding whatever's not on-target for the listener's goals; expansive listening is simply curious, open to whatever comes.

What I think John Francis discovered as he walked in silence and listened to the world is the richness of passive/empathetic/expansive listening, the polar opposite of the most common position in the Western world, which is active/critical/reductive. When speaking is taken out of the equation, all that remains is experiencing the words of others in the here and now. It's no coincidence that many spiritual masters and religious orders have adopted silence as a practice. (For more about silence as a whole see my previous blog on silence here). The difference with John is that he undertook the practice in the real world, not in a walled community where it was the norm. His experience sheds unique insight on the value of silence. I think all children should spend at least a week in silence as part of their education. What a different world we would inhabit if we all learned to listen in this way!


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  2. A week in silence would definitely be a great exercise. More than a decade though? I mean I found his talk absolutely insightful. It is great that he withstood peer pressure, and managed to teach valuable lessons without uttering a word (unwittingly as well, which really says a lot about how we understand the world around us), all the while listening to what people around him were really saying. But relinquishing our most powerful communication device just to learn those life lessons myself, I probably wouldn't do that. That's something else we as humans have learned, and Dan Gilbert said it best when he first spoke at TED: We can imagine stuff, we can think about how our life would be, how our communication would be if we listened better. No doubt John gave us something to think about though.


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