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Listening beyond words - intuiting and embodying systems change

By Charlotte Dufour

“Systemic approaches”, “systems change”, “conscious leadership”, “consciousness”, “inner capacities”, “somatic approaches”… I’ve been fascinated and enthused at how often these terms are popping up in posts of all kinds in my Linked In feed.

Just a few years ago, when leaving a secure UN job as a nutrition expert to meld my expertise on sustainable food systems with my passion for meditation and yoga to promote a “soulful approach to sustainable development” and a SDG on Love and Joy, it felt like a very risky leap. Several colleagues and family members warned me to be careful not to be seen as too “new agey”, concerned I was jeopardizing my career. But making a career has never been my main purpose and I knew from experience I could trust my heart and gut.

It turns out it was worth the risk. I soon met like-minded peers with whom we founded the Listening to the Earthcampaign and a year later, Listening Inspires. The move also opened the door to fascinating professional collaborations with 4SD on living systems and now with the Conscious Food Systems Alliance, hosted by UNDP.

Some spaces are clearly opening up. But while it has become much easier to talk about systems change and even consciousness in the professional sphere, I keep on being struck by how difficult it is to talk or write about such themes without emptying them of their substance.

I have seen many attempts to develop graphs and frameworks that try to capture and portray a systemic approach, for example. But the mere effort of depicting such concepts in a 2-dimensional space – even if one uses circles to hide the linear thinking we are often still trapped in – seems bound to fall short. The systems we are talking about are inherently too complex to be reduced to simple visuals. Some dimensions and nuances are seemingly invisible and yet essential – such as the quality of relationships and the magnetism of individuals. They are simply beyond words, yet those are precisely the dimensions wherein the magic and opportunity for change lies…

As for consciousness, one can offer many definitions – but can one really pin down in words the experience of consciousness – an experience which is in perpetual evolution throughout our lifetime?

So how does one communicate about and work with systems thinking and consciousness in a “genuine” way?

I’m certainly not saying one should not try to put such themes in words. Graphs and frameworks are certainly useful to open a few “brain boxes”, trigger a few a-ha moments, and provide a common approach to a given theme. Definitions are also essential for us to communicate with and learn from one another.

Some use the power of story and narratives. I’m a fan of the blog “Heart of the Art”, for example, which embraces the “messy reality” of living systems. The name of the blog conveys the fact that working with and communicating about systems is an art (and there may be as many ways of seeing and describing the system as there are artists). The blog posts written in collaboration with 4SD “Feeling systems” and “Seeing into systems” are particularly skilful in conveying in words qualities and flows that are somewhat beyond words. I consider them “must reads” for anyone interested in systems change.

Regardless of the means used to communicate about complex themes such as systems and consciousness, I would argue that it is essential to embrace the fact that words and graphs can never fully capture what it is we are talking about – it really is about the experience, an experience that is beyond words.

I recently participated in a Systemic Constellations workshop hosted by Charles O’Malley, which offered precisely this kind of experiential approach to address social and environmental challenges. The experience was too subtle and personal to describe here, but Charles’ description of constellations captures their essence: they are a “profound process that moves us beyond the purely rational into a deeper space where we can identify blind spots and acknowledge and accept hard truths.” They can “help us get unstuck and discover what real change is possible.” (more workshops are coming up: check it out here).

The experience confirmed the notion which has been growing in me in recent months that accompanying and fostering systems change entails listening beyond words. It entails listening with one’s heart, listening with one’s senses, listening with one’s gut. One could argue it calls for a new literacy.

The quality of the listening will be coloured by our own self-awareness – the awareness of our biases, of the experiences and knowledge that frame how we see systems, of our emotions and emotional triggers.

The quality of our listening will be commensurate to our humility – the willingness to see that ours is one point of view amongst many, that we probably have much to learn from others’, and that “right” and “wrong” are not absolutes.

The quality of our listening will be enriched by the depth of our compassion – the ability to feel with others and with Nature, and to care.

The quality of our listening will also shape our ability to embody and thereby inspire the change we want to see.

People can be inspired by what we say, but the power of our words comes when they are born of deep personal experience, when they are spoken from the heart and from the gut. This power is further enhanced when our actions are aligned with our words and our inner truth. Therein lies integrity.

In short, listening beyond words is a life-long journey, one which we will continue exploring here, so come back for more soon!

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