Academic journal, CUSP, Open Psychology Research Centre, Psychology, Research in the School

Cultures of Listening: a new article

Open Psychology Research Centre academic Dr Johanna Motzkau talks about her new article. Her research brings a fresh pair of ears to the problem of what it means to listen.

My new paper with Nick Lee, examines how psychologists have studied listening, then goes on to develop a concept of listening that is better able to address the question of what is going on when people listen, and when they don’t.

Is listening just a matter of taking in sound waves through our ears or decoding verbal messages inside our heads? If that was the case, we probably would not find some things more difficult to hear than others. For example, think about how hard it can be to hear negative feedback in a work or study context. And of course, it can be just as hard to frame the feedback in such a way that it will be listened to. In our personal lives, our media use and political conversations, and even in the conduct of professional roles, we all tend to be selective listeners.

The new paper argues that this is because listening is organised and guided by “cultures of listening”. These are dynamic webs of meanings, expectations and understandings that shape what we are able to hear, and who from and under what circumstances. Multiple and diverse cultures of listening shape what we hear as important and as something that may need further talking over, and what we may find challenging to hear, and the things that we just cannot hear at all. These cultures of listening also influence what we do with what we hear. All of this indicates that listening is not a purely personal, individual affair: it is always also societal, political and contextual. As culturally competent people, we will have an intuitive sense of the cultures of listening we are working within, because they are rooted in our past and present personal experience. But this intuitive aspect can also make it hard for us to become aware of such cultures and how they steer, enable and facilitate our listening in ways that function beyond our personal control. The new paper takes some initial, very important steps toward the systematic study of cultures of listening in order to understand these simultaneously societal and personal intuitions, and how they can be studied and, if necessary, challenged.

Why does this matter? In recent years we have all recognised that public debate on a wide range of topics has become increasingly polarised. We are experiencing a crisis of listening, or at least an explosion of troubled listening spots where different people or groups draw completely different conclusions from the very same information or statistics. Any one of these topics, from Brexit through to trans women’s participation in competitive sport, would be a suitable site to begin the examination of cultures of listening. However, Nick and myself both have backgrounds in research on child protection and safeguarding so our paper focusses on problems around listening within the child protection practices through which police officers and social workers try to prevent, detect and prosecute the neglect, abuse and sexual exploitation of children.

Sexual assaults against children by caregivers, professionals and others have been committed throughout history but, up until fairly recently, this fact was rarely acknowledged in public and the crimes were seldom prosecuted. A specific culture of listening that upheld adult power and authority meant that children’s’ testimony was something that, as it were, could not be heard. Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone in to making sure children do have the opportunity to speak and that we can hear their voices. However, even though the situation has improved, it is far from clear that these children are met with the cultures of listening that they deserve.

Over the past few decades UK child protection has become marked as a system in constant crisis. Investigations into why it seems so difficult to improve child protection practice often find failures in communication between different professionals and agencies, and some recent high-profile cases that have been reported in the media indicate that children and young people were not listened to. Our paper describes how children were denied access to care, consideration and justice because of the specific cultures of listening that shaped the listening practices and responses of professionals. For example, the Jay report (2014) examined a case of organised and systematic sexual exploitation of girl children in Rotherham that came to light in 2012. The report indicated that the authorities had had suspicions about the organised exploitation of young people, and some of the victims concerned had reported the ongoing abuse to the police or social workers but their reports were not taken seriously, were not passed on efficiently, or not treated as a priority. Similarly, late in 2021 the media reported a number of tragic cases where children had come to harm at the hands of relatives after authorities had apparently not listened to concerns that had been raised by the children themselves or by other family members.

To understand these and other instances of troubled listening, it is necessary to recognise how cultures of listening shape the intuitions that guide

  • the selection, ordering and interpretation of what is heard
  • decisions about what to do with what is heard, e.g.: how to act on it, record or share it
  • the consideration (implicit or explicit) given to the risks and consequences (anticipated and experienced) associated with what is heard.

We suggest that understanding listening in this new way – as an activity that requires discretion, courage and effort, and also an activity that carries personal and professional risk – could help us to consider the recurring problems with child protection practices less as issues of isolated, individual failure or malpractice, and more as the consequence of problematic cultures of listening that make it difficult for the professionals involved to hear and act on specific evidence.


Johanna Motzkau and Nick Lee (2022) Cultures of listening: psychology, resonance, justice. Review of General Psychology 10.1177/10892680221077999

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