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Lesson 10: Communication

In this lesson the focus is on communication as a tool. In our neoliberal society, there is a huge emphasis on expressing oneself. Listening is underestimated and considered a ‘soft’ quality.

The questions in this lesson are based on the essay 'Communication as Radical Tool in Times of Societal Shift' written by Els Cornelis.
To read the essay, click here.

What if truly listening is what is needed, especially in times of shifts and crises? What would change for the better if we practiced truly listening? What would the potential impact on art and art education be? Would it be possible to build a different (art) world together?

In the To Do’s, by Els Cornelis and Fabiola Camuti, you will find general questions and lots of different exercises on communication, listening, and giving and receiving feedback, focusing f.e. on the role of the body, silence, re-enactment, etc. To be used in and outside of the classroom.
"What is seen or what is heard is inextricably intertwined with what is represented. What is represented is seen and what is not seen is not represented.

It is a loop one can get stuck in forever."
But how to communicate in what I believe in? How to find common grounds and bring about a much needed change? And how to do this together? And perhaps more importantly, how to connect and truly listen to each other in times of strong views and opinions, often opposite to each other?

General questions

To do A

General questions

What does it mean to be compassionate according to you? How can compassion relate to decoloniality and inclusivity?

In what sense do you think contemplation can be a political or even a rebellious act? Can you give a specific example?

How could active listening as practiced within the Socratic Dialogue be considered to fit decolonial listening? What is needed to make it fit?
To what extent do you think listening can act as an instrument of revolution in times of societal shift? Have you experienced ‘best practices’ with regard to what one can do by truly listening? By storytelling, you can share these ‘best practices’ to inspire one another. You can also write out the story of your ‘best practice’ and read it out loud or give the written story as a gift to someone.

Why do you think it is important to ‘overturn extrovert supremacy’? What would be the consequences of labelling truly listening not as ‘soft’, but as ‘strong, vital, essential or even radical’? What do you think would happen?
What would be the consequences of labelling truly listening not as ‘soft’, but as ‘strong, vital, essential or even radical’? What do you think would happen?

Artistic Ethnographic exercise

To do B

Artistic Ethnographic exercise on communication and listening. Step 1:

Today you appoint yourself an artistic ethnographic researcher on communication. Take some paper or a dummy, pencils or fine liners with you to write down your observations. Go out into the world and find an environment where people meet. This could be on the train, in the park or in the classroom - all perfect locations to carefully examine the structure of communication. Pick out two or three people talking to each other.

Observe the situation carefully. All observations are valuable. Also the seemingly tiny ones.

Some questions to get you started.

How would you graphically characterize this communication? And what does listening in this situation look like? What is the colour of the atmosphere you are sensing?
What about the structure, rhythm, texture, tone of voice, energy, or volume and speed of this communication? What is the speaker's and listener's posture and gaze? And what about their body movements? Do they use their bodies, or do you see them acting more like 'talking heads'? What else do you see happening?

Draw the observations (and their interpretations) in your dummy.

Do this for some hours, either in a row or intermittent, attempting to find various conversations. Title each drawing and add the environment, date, and time. Also include some essentials of the conversation you witnessed – how many people were involved, what was the estimated age of the conversational partners, and other information you find important.

To do B

Step 2:

After drawing some conversations, what do you consider to be ‘good’ communication?

How can you tell in the drawings?

What is the structure you prefer, the atmosphere you like?
What kind of communicator or listener would you like to be?

In what way could these drawings help you to practice communicating and truly listening?

Listening to re-enact

To do C

Listening to re-enact

To what extent do we truly listen to someone else's story when they talk to us? One of the key characteristics of truly listening is being focused, putting everything else aside and just being in the actual moment of the conversation, of the dialogue.

Within this exercise, the task is to listen to the other person's story, paying attention to details, and then re-enact that same story, staying as true to the original story as possible. This creates a focused form of listening and provides a way to literally walk in each other's shoes and empathise with someone else.

An interesting addition, of course, is a reflection on the exercise. What do the details of the story evoke in you? And why do you focus on some details more than others? These are just some questions that can be discussed in a joint reflection.
This type of exercise can be used as a basic form when constructing stories and dramaturgy for participatory theatre workshops, for example. The act of re-enacting someone else's story, using the first-person pronoun, is fundamentally based on the theatrical play of 'as if'. In fact, it can be seen as the first step to building a character, but in this case the character is sitting right in front of you, is a real person. In re-enacting that story, you immediately create a relationship with someone who may have been a stranger to you, and the act of listening to that person's story becomes the main tool for connection. In this way, the idea of working on the material of someone else's story can create a bond in a group right from the start.
Moreover, the exercise of re-enacting a story, as a dramaturgical tool, opens up a practice of care for the storyteller who is now entrusted with a gift and given the task of doing justice to the story someone has donated, and that same person is not forced to tell his/her personal story on stage, as this can often be distressing and painful.

Embodied listening

To do D

Exercise with Embodied listening 1

We are so used to ignoring our bodies when we are in meetings or classes. Sitting on a chair at a table, we see only the upper parts of our body and we focus mainly on the face. Movement is kept to a minimum. In the essay you have just read, the body is mentioned as an important aspect in listening. How could you engage the body in conversations? What could be alternatives in a meeting or class to involve the body? You could list possible alternatives in a group and try one out every week, as a real, playful and collective experiment.

A great example to inspire you is an assignment by Pavèl van Houten from Wicked Art Assignments (2020) that asks students to design their own feedback interview.
"One student asked me to lie down under the table while she was laying on top of it. Under usual circumstances a feedback interview can be tense and hierarchical, but this absurdist situation created room for a very open and creative discussion."

"Another student pitched her work in five minutes, standing at the top of the stairs. I had to stand at the bottom of the stairs and run her work completely into the ground, but while ascending the stairs become increasingly positive about it. Having arrived at the top I was to praise her work euphorically as the best ever. The student knew: I’m being heavily criticized because it is necessary, but with this method she became the owner of the feedback process and got from it what she wanted."

Wicked arts assignments

The almost hundred arts assignments collected here connect to the visual arts, performance, theatre, music and design, but more importantly: they encourage cross-disciplinarity. They reflect themes and ways of working in contemporary arts, offering opportunities to learn about ourselves, the arts and the world.

The wicked arts assignments are meant to spark the imagination of both teachers and students, contributing to new, topical educational and artistic practices.

Valiz, 2020
Editors: Emiel Heijnen, Melissa Bremmer
Co-editor: Sanne Kersten.
Contributors: Pavèl van Houten, Jorge Lucero, Nina Paim, Erik Schrooten, Stephanie Springgay, and many many others.

Embodied Listening 2

To do E part 1

Exercise Embodied Listening 2 - Stick Exercise from Theater

How can we practice embodied listening in a way that helps us building a relation with the other? How can we listen to the other by feeling their body?

Stick Exercise

Principles: Space; Gaze; Listening; Balance; Precision; Breath.
Further Principles: Rhythm.
Starting Position: ACTIVE with the balance slightly moved forward and the heels slightly lifted from the floor.
Exercise carried out in couple(s)
Position the stick horizontally, between you and your partner and keep it in balance. The ends of the sticks go on the dan tian point. This is a specific point situated just below the navel, central in several Asian traditions in relation to the concept of releasing energy (qi).
Start to walk forward and backward. Feel who is going to lead and after a while change roles. Exercise it both with ‘deciding who is going to lead’ and with ‘feeling who is going to lead’. Focus your eyes at the dan tian point of the other. Begin slowly, and then bit by bit go faster. If it feels right change roles more often.
If the stick falls, let it fall, never grab it.
If you see another couple that you are (maybe) going to bump in to, let the stick fall (this especially counts for the one walking forwards). 
Explore the space and the couple possibilities.

To do E part 2

‘Gaze’ Addition:

Change the gaze from the ‘stick’ point to a specific point between the eyes of the partner.

‘Space’ Addition: Start to move covering the whole space not necessarily moving in straight lines.
‘Speed Change’ Additions: Change speed, suddenly not gradually, from ‘slow’ to ‘fast’.
Change speed, suddenly not gradually, from ‘fast’ to ‘slow’.
‘Stop-non-Stop’ Addition: Immediate stop of the couple, maintaining the inner impulses of the action.
Impulses’ Addition: Transfer ‘the whole action to the inner body, transforming it in impulses.
Further Additions: The Stick exercise considers multiple levels of development, such as further ‘speed change’ additions, different ways of working within the couple, to several changing in the position of the stick. Ultimately the exercise can be executed without the stick, although maintaining the quality of the work that the stick has provided. However, in order to reach these levels, this exercise needs to be explored in a longer period of time.

Listening in Feedback sessions

To do F part 1

Listening in Feedback sessions

A feedback conversation about your work often feels vulnerable. Sometimes it is difficult to really listen. What could help you be a good listener? What if you try a few different ways and see what happens?

The following suggestions may give you some inspiration. In any case, it is important to discuss this in advance with the feedback provider(s) and to check whether they are willing to participate in this experiment. As a feedback receiver, you take charge of the feedback conversation.
As a feedback receiver, you can choose not to respond directly to the feedback. Just sit still, feeling your body as you sit upright with your feet firmly on the ground. If it helps you, you can take some notes.

You can ask the feedback provider(s) to ask only questions that you do not initially answer. Finally, reflect on the questions you just heard: what intrigues or interests you the most? If you like, you can share this with the feedback giver(s). You don't have to come up with a solution right away. No stress.

To do F part 2

Or maybe instead of questions, you want to hear only positive comments in the first part of the feedback, and only tips and associations in the second part.

First part: A good way of formulating positive comments is: ‘What worked for me is ….‘

Second part: Associations can be written down on sticky notes by the feedback giver. The feedback receiver subsequently places the sticky notes closer to or further away from a circle drawn on a large piece of paper and representing the work that is being discussed, depending on how closely the associations or tips match his/her/their intent.

The suggestions of the way of working in both parts are based on the DasArts Feedback method (see below; and )
I also personally really like to give/receive feedback in small groups, especially in a (re)starting phase of creating a design, visual work or research, by making small, 3-minute drawings of an animal. This can include writing some key words that act as the title of the feedback drawing. A short round in which the feedback giver gives the drawing to the feedback receiver and explains what he/she has drawn and why, usually works well. Again, the feedback receiver does not have to say anything but can just listen.

Feedback recipients often experience the drawings as small, special gifts. The drawings in different feedback sessions ranged from salmon swimming against the current to fireflies, or various fictional animals.

To do F part 3

Try these different versions and notice what these little experiments give you. Can you listen better because you know you don't have to respond immediately? Do you feel a greater openness in receiving? And what exactly do you hear? Do you hear better what the feedback giver's intention is? Or do you find that more difficult? How helpful do you find the feedback? Pay attention to your reactions as a researcher, and feel your body, follow your thoughts.
And what about the feedback givers? How did they experience this way of giving feedback? Did you notice any differences from how you would normally give feedback? Did you perhaps feel less critical, more playful, more caring?

Share your experiences and think of your next experiment in giving and receiving feedback.