Listening: The New Democratic Deficit



Although much prized in daily conversation, good listening has been almost completely ignored in that form of political conversation we know as democracy. Practically all the attention has been paid to speaking, both in terms of the skills to be developed and the ways in which we should understand what enhancing ‘inclusion’ might mean (i.e. getting more people to speak). The argument here is that both democratic theory and democratic practice would be reinvigorated by attention to listening. To ask why listening has been ignored is to inquire into the very nature of politics, and to suggest a range of ways in which listening could both improve political processes (particularly democratic ones) and enhance our understanding of them – including where they do not always work as well as we might want them to. Four ways in which good listening can help achieve democratic objectives are outlined: enhancing legitimacy, helping to deal with deep disagreements, improving understanding and increasing empowerment. This leads to a discussion of the difference between good and bad political listening, before the question of ‘political noise’ is broached (i.e. what we should be listening for). Finally, the listening lacuna in Habermas' theory of communicative rationality is pointed out, leading to a discussion of the potential analytic power of listening in relation to deliberative democracy in general and one citizens' jury case in particular.