Leadership and Listening for Liberation

by Kara Huntermoon

Liberation Listening is a radical community healing method designed to increase the effectiveness of change-making organizations in the face of systems of oppression and a collapsing society.  A major focus of our work is in developing and supporting leadership.  Although readers of this article may be unfamiliar with the practices of Liberation Listening, the principles of leadership apply to all kinds of human groups.

In Liberation Listening we define leadership as the ability and willingness to make a commitment to see that everything goes well to the limit of one’s resources.

Leadership is the commitment to help everything go well in your family, community, and environment.  It is realizing that you are responsible (able to respond) to the challenges that face us.

In order to do this, we must heal the old distresses that cause us to feel helpless.  The truth is that we are powerful, capable, loving, and intelligent.  The challenges before us are large, and we are the best people for the job.

Leadership is an inherent human characteristic.  In any group of people, leadership functions must be performed in order for the group to function well.  At least one person must think about the group as a whole rather than about just her or his role in it.

It is possible to deliberately create sanctuary spaces where we can connect with other humans, think, release emotions, and heal from old traumas.  This creation of sanctuary space can help the group to function better in terms of addressing the real-time challenges we encounter.  It is not necessary for all people in the group to be committed to specific emotional healing paths in order to use the safety of the group for their own healing.  It is only necessary that we make and follow agreements that lead to a greater sense of safety, trust, and connection with each other over time.

Leadership may include listening respectfully to people in your group who are unawarely acting out old emotional trauma.  Usually this listening requires us to decide that we are not actually threatened by the person’s emotional reactions.  By listening respectfully, we give the person time and space to heal themselves with the help of our positive regard.  We may also need to give ourselves attention for challenging emotions that arise while listening.  This form of listening assumes that each person has always done the best they possibly could with the resources available to them at each moment.  By listening, we offer a moment with additional emotional resources, to see if that may be what they need in order to do better than before.

Be aware, however, that it is not always effective or advisable to use compassionate listening skills on someone who unawarely acts out emotional distress in your group.  Sometimes the best option is to set clear boundaries and expectations for behavior, and ask people to leave the group if they cannot follow these agreements.  The specific appropriate response to each incident will require the thinking of the group, and while we can learn from other groups’ successes, we will require fresh thinking to solve our group’s problems.  Giving time to really hear all group members’ thinking is a valuable tool.

It is not the leader’s job to do all the thinking for the group.  Rather, a good leader listens to the thinking of every group member, fills in any gaps, and organizes the thinking into a consistent form.  The leader then communicates this synthesis of ideas back to the group well enough to secure their agreement, and, if possible, their commitment to it.

Being a leader opens you to attacks.  People have lots of old trauma about power dynamics in their past.  People also project hopes and frozen needs onto leaders.  A frozen need is something you needed in childhood, but did not get.  It continues to feel like something you need, even though it can never be met because it was actually a need in the past, not the present.  For example, many people have both current needs for connection, and frozen needs for connection from too much isolation as young children. Frozen needs can never be satisfied, so when they are projected onto leaders, they are bound to be disappointed.  People often react to this disappointment by blaming the leader.  (We can never satisfy our frozen needs, but we can heal them by mourning the developmental loss.)

As leaders, we must be ready to listen compassionately to ourselves and others in times of attack, and use it as an opportunity for further healing.  Peer support is essential in these situations.  Use your listening relationships to stay resilient during, and to recover from, attacks.  Look at it as an opportunity to heal old traumas and free more of your thinking from the binding power of past hurts.

Within the context of Liberation Listening, we agree to support the leaders of classes and workshops in several specific ways.  These include:

  1. Continuing to do our own thinking, and considering what we as individuals can do to help the classes and workshops go well.
  2. Supporting the leader’s thinking, even when that thinking is different from our own. This may include agreeing to take on roles delegated to us by the leader.
  3. Sharing our thinking with the leader. If we think the leader is making a mistake, or missing valuable information, or acting out distress in the class, we find an appropriate time to share our criticism. The goal is not to make the leader change direction, but to give the leader more information with which to make good decisions.
  4. Using Listening Skills on the leader. All people have patterns of behavior based on old trauma that they are not yet aware of. In order to help the leader move forward on topics that will make future classes go well, the class is asked to think together about the leader and use listening skills on the leader at the end of every class series.  Feel free to push the leader with persistent listening outside of class as well.  Of course, do this as two people thinking about one person—in other words, include the leader in your thinking about how you plan to use listening skills on her or him in persistent sessions.
  5. Using time in your listening sessions to talk about leading and leadership. What distresses make you want to avoid leadership or rigidly take on leadership?
  6. Learning to take on leadership ourselves. If there is a topic that is underrepresented by current Liberation Listening leaders, learn about the topic and do extensive listening sessions on the topic. Prepare yourself to lead on that topic.  Solicit the support of the leadership team in reaching for your goals.

Directions for Listening Sessions:

You can try doing this with a friend or co-revolutionary: Set a timer for 20 minutes.  One person talks while the other person silently listens with curiosity and interest.  When the timer goes off, switch roles and start the timer for another 20 minutes.  The second person talks while the first listens.  It’s important for each person to get the same amount of time.  Hold what you hear with confidentiality.

If you prefer to do this work alone, try journalling on the topic, or daydreaming.  You can also try telling your thoughts to a tree, animal, or rock.

Use the following prompts for your work on leadership: 

  1. Tell memories of good leadership in your past: mentors, people you admired, people who could think well about you and the group, people who helped things go well. If you can, start with the earliest memory, and tell each memory in chronological order.
  2. Tell memories of poor leadership in your past: authority figures, people whose power over you or over the group was tainted by their distresses, people who had power but could not accept feedback, etc. If you can, start with the earliest memory, and tell each memory in chronological order.
  3. What happened in the past when you tried to right a perceived wrong?
  4. Tell memories of your own leadership or attempted leadership. If you can, start with the earliest memory, and tell each memory in chronological order.
  5. What does it mean to you to be out in front? When you are in a group, and everyone is looking to you for guidance or leadership, what emotions arise in you? What thoughts come into your mind?  How does your body feel?
  6. What groups are you a part of? How could you help those groups function better? Think about the group’s current functioning.  What are the needs and challenges of its members?  How can the group meet those needs and address those challenges?

Kara Huntermoon is one of seven co-owners of Heart-Culture Farm Community, near Eugene, Oregon. She spends most of her time in unpaid labor in service of community: child-raising, garden-growing, and emotion/relationship management among the community residents. She also teaches Liberation Listening, a personal growth process that focuses on ending oppression.

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