UTS has partnered with Jawun to offer amazing 6-week secondments working with Indigenous Regional Organisations throughout Australia. I was honoured to be one of UTS’s first secondees alongside my colleague Scott Britcher. While Scott got the chance to work with AHC in urban Redfern, I was sent on a journey to South Australia’s Lower River Murray, home of the Ngarrindjeri Nation.

There are many stories to tell and experiences to share from working with NREC and Moorundi. One of the most valuable practices that has fundamentally changed my understanding of both Indigenous cultures and learning and teaching is the practice of deep listening.

Not being an expert in the concept of deep listening, hopefully this blog piques your interest and showcases some more expert resources available to us all. 

But first, I want to thank Aunty Ellen Trevorrow, Uncle Steven Sumner, Aunt Margi Sumner, Uncle Derek Walker, and Dave McLeod, Jawun’s Regional director for SA, who introduced us to deep listening, along with everyone I worked with and was supported by, especially my manager Anna Stack who encouraged me to apply.

The difference between active and deep listening

Jiman and Bundjalung scholar Judy Atkinson describes deep listening as “a non-intrusive observation… a reflective, non-judgemental consideration of what is being seen and heard”. This is why I think deep listening leads to deep learning.

Or as Oscar Trimboli says:

Two ears one mouth, use them in proportion.

He also promotes the 125/400 rule: you can say 125 words per minute, but you can comprehend 400 per minute. So when you’re trying to learn something, what is the better use of your time?

Active listening is about what you’re doing as the listener – how you’re paying attention to what’s said, and how you’re responding.

Deep listening is much more about the speaker and what isn’t said. It’s about “respecting one’s interlocutor as having discrete responsibilities, as someone obligated to and capable of deciding what knowledge should be shared and with whom”

Learn more about deep listening for historians in McGrath, 2021.

Kungan Ngarrindjeri Yunnan

Our Lands, Our Waters, Our People, All Living Things are connected. We implore people to respect our Ruwe (Country) as it was created in the Kaldowinyeri (the Creation). We long for sparkling, clean waters, healthy land and people and all living things. We long for the Yarluwar-Ruwe (Sea Country) of our ancestors. Our vision is all people Caring, Sharing, Knowing and Respecting the lands, the waters and all living things.

(Ngarrindjeri Nation, 2006)

Kungan Ngarrindjeri Yunnan means Listening to Ngarrindjeri Speaking or Listen to what Ngarrindjeri people have to say. Kungan is Listening in Ngarrindjeri but another form of the word is Kungelun which is something more like contemplating/thinking through listening.

The message to listen, and particularly to Ngarrindjeri women speaking was a continuous echo throughout my Jawun experience. It was essential during our first days when Aunty Ellen Trevorrow taught us to weave. It was reiterated again when Uncle Darrel Sumner emphasised to us that it is the Ngarrindjeri women who hold the power on Country. And eventually I understood he wasn’t talking about any kind of political power, he was referring to the power that comes from the Yarluwar Ruwe, from the Meeting of the Waters, from the wisdom of Country and tradition. That message helped me understand and engage with the specific tasks and projects on secondment.

Stitch by stitch,

Circle by circle,

Weaving is like the creation of life.

All things are connected.

Aunty Ellen Trevorrow

This idea of listening has been the foundation of the Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreement (KNYA) between the Ngarrindjeri Nation and the South Australian government.

Uncle Archie Roach explained the benefits of deep listening:

It does wonders for a person to just be still and listen to someone else talk about their life and how they probably came through things. You never know what you’ll learn.

Deep listening (dadirri) – Creative Spirits quoted in ‘He’s on the way back’, Koori Mail 496 p.16

Aunty Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri Woman from the Coorong, was Archie’s wife and a successful singer in her own right. Uncle Archie wrote a beautiful song about returning to the Coorong with Aunt Ruby for the first time after she was kidnapped from there as a child. Nopun Kurongk describes the profound effect this time had on them both. Watch Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow to get a sense of the power of the Lower River Murray region.

‘Dadirri’ – Deep Listening of Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann

2021 Senior Australian of the year, Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann is a great educator from The Ngangikurungkurr, Daly River. Miriam Rose has spread the concept and term Dadirri “inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness”. From her, this practice which Miriam calls ‘a gift for all Australia’ has spread into many other sectors like health care and organisational thinking. On a practical level in Higher Education deep listening practices create less conflict and confusion within organisations.

The cost of not listening

You can hear more about the cost of not listening and its devastating global impacts through COVID-19. You might also remember in the late 90s how not listening resulted in Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island) bridge affair on the Ngarrindjeri Nation.

The lost history of Ngarrindjeri and other Indigenous ANZACs is being rebuilt in the Virtual War Memorial. Not listening also has implications for how we think about the Uluru Statement from the Heart and The Indigenous Voice to Parliament. We’ve spent a lot of time not listening to one another in this country.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of listening to make someone else feel better and to open our perceptual field to new sources of information.

Ashley Orme Nichols in Essentials of Communication

Deep listening for learning and teaching

One of the ideas we often espouse in the LX.lab is Active Learning or learning by doing stuff. One of the key components of this is improving listening skills. That works, but there’s another approach to learning that isn’t so visible, measurable or exciting. In online spaces we refer to this as lurking or, perhaps more politely, Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP). 

“Lurkers are invisible, silent learners on the peripherals of the networks…[who] prefer vicarious interaction”

Bozkurt, A. et al 2020

LPPs often engage more in deep listening so they may be less likely to jump into conversations, especially when the window of opportunity for participation is limited. Think of that situation where you ask ‘does anyone have any questions?’, you wait 3 seconds, and then move on. I do that all the time. The trouble is, someone engaged in deep listening might not form their really great question until 5-10 minutes later. By building belonging into classrooms and courses, we can give credence to various approaches to learning such as deep listening.

Learn more about Jawun, Deep listening and Ngarrindjeri Nation

Jawun is a trusted partner which has been working to build capacity with Indigenous Organisations for over 20 years. Deep listening is an essential part of these secondments. It can take several forms, and sometimes you’re not sure what to do next with what you’ve heard. You just have to sit with it.

Visit the Ngarrindjeri Culture Hub to discover a gateway to the Ngarrindjeri Nation.

  • A beautiful reflection on your Jawun experience, thank you for sharing. What a wonderful opportunity and experience on understanding and embracing deep listening.

  • I found the concept of deep listening to be fascinating. It’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally to many of us, as we often focus on waiting for our turn to speak and formulating our own responses. However, the ability to simply sit, listen without judgment, and genuinely reflect on and contemplate what is being said is a valuable skill. It may come more easily to individuals with personalities who are more accustomed to introspection and self-reflection.
    One particular aspect that struck a chord with me was Aunty Ellen’s connection between weaving and the interconnectedness of life. She highlighted the idea that everything is connected, similar to the threads in a weaving. This metaphor suggests that our lives are intertwined and influenced by each other, emphasizing the significance of recognizing and appreciating our connections with others and the world around us.
    Thank you for sharing your learnings with us David.

  • Such a captivating piece! Thanks for sharing, David. I appreciate how you tied your learnings about “deep listening” back to the work we do in the LX.lab – it’s a valuable lesson for us all!

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