The first event in this Lent term from the Decolonizing the Curriculum seminar series introduced an innovative tool, ‘co-listening’,  for reflecting on how racism may affect us at more personal and emotional levels and may alert us to forms of mistreatment of which we may be less aware, and how this may come up in knowledge encounters within our academic work and teaching/learning practice. Dr  Mónica Moreno Figueroa explained the basis of co-listening: this tool allows us to exercise our capability of speaking and of listening. In pairs or small groups, each person has a moment of uninterrupted speaking while the others listen actively. On the one hand, co-listening is based on the notion of our capability of formulating our own ideas and finding our own solutions to what troubles us when we have time devoted to formulate our thoughts and notice and pay attention to the feelings that emerge when we do so. On the other hand, those who listen accompany this process, but do not interrupt to interject their own solutions or recommendations or to satisfy their curiosity. The listeners do not judge, do not give advice, and if they ask something, it is to sustain the speaker’s elaboration of her own thought. Co-listening also works on the agreement of confidentiality in two ways: first, the confidentiality of not revealing to others what was discussed, and second, in that you do not bring up the topics in future encounters with the speaker.

Co-listening is a tool that can be applied in multiple settings and also be used in the classroom. Dr Moreno Figueroa demonstrated the technique with a discussion about our experiences of mistreatment as an entry point to reflect on forms of oppression that affect us. To start we were grouped in pairs in order to think what comes up when I ask myself “what worries me today,?” “what is stopping me from being here?” or even “where would I rather be?”. Each person had three minutes to speak and then switch to listening to her partner for three minutes. A moderator keeps the time and signals when to switch and when to end. After this first round, the participants of the workshop were asked how they viewed this first exercise, how it felt to listen without ‘bringing your own thoughts’ and how it felt to speak with full attention and knowing you won’t be interrupted. Subsequently, Dr Moreno Figueroa challenged us to think about divisions in society, like racism, sexism or classism, how these hurt us as people while shaping our experiences and our capacity to think. She invited us to think how, if we try to end divisions, we might encounter defensiveness as a common difficulty as we might find it hard to recognise the moments where those divisions show up in ourselves. In a second round of practice of the technique, we discussed in pairs, again for three minutes each, what our earliest memories of mistreatment were, whether we witness mistreatment of others, we were mistreated, or we were the ones who mistreated. Again, after the exercise we reconvened for commentaries and open discussion. The notion was that we are all capable of and vulnerable to mistreatment, as we all have feelings, for example, of being irritated, feeling uncooperative, snapping at others, or even having a need to win in an argument. This was a reminder of how in societies structured around organised forms of mistreatment, if we have grown up experiencing or witnessing mistreatment we are vulnerable to act out either end of that mistreatment (victim/perpetrator) particularly if we don’t get to recover from it. Co-listening was then used again as a example of  a way of recovering those memories and the feelings that came up. We had a subsequent round of practice of co-listening exploring our earliest memories of witnessing someone stopping mistreatment, thinking through where and how did we learn to intervene and what are the consequences of this. The final round was done in self-selected groups of people targeted by racism or not to explore our backgrounds considering “who our people are” and what’s good about then, and then we explored our earliest memories of witnessing or experiencing racism.

These exercises led to a consideration of how these experiences may link to the social realm. Dr Moreno Figueroa proposed the idea that that oppression may be understood as a formed of organized, socialized, and legitimized mistreatment. As the previous reflection showed, we are all capable of and vulnerable to mistreat others. However, the platforms that people have to act out their mistreatment are very different and power-laden. Sometimes, processes of defensiveness and estrangement from forms of social mistreatment lead to the vilification of specific groups, instead of to a wider reflection on the social manifestation of mistreatment and our possible involvement in it. We see this, for instance, in the demonization of white working class for racism, or of men of colour for sexism. Overall, in the workshop Dr. Moreno Figueroa illustrated the technique of co-listening. She also invited us to explore the notions of uninterrupted speaking and our capability of finding our own answers as well as of active and intentional listening. Moreover, co-listening may open a window to discuss issues of oppression from a perspective where we may let go a position of defensiveness, and expand the possibility of reflecting together on issues of racism and oppression in which we are all to some extent implicated. We can add co-listening to our tool-box in and out of the classroom.


Dr María Moreno is a Postdoctoral Research Associate for the ESRC funded Project Latin American Racism in a ‘Post-Racial’ Age based at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge

Part of the Decolonising the Curriculum in Theory and Practice Research Group at CRASSH


Tel: +44 1223 766886