Listening, not just hearing

I have had several requests through facebook from voters on both sides of the EU issue on how to find a healthy, positive way forward. As deeply upset as many of us still are, it is difficult to think in positive, helpful terms when there still so much anger about this referendum taking place at all.

But I have put some thought into this and wish to share some ideas. In conflict resolution and mediation, lot of weight is placed on listening. This is a deep kind of listening, not one in which words are heard and then our point of view put forward, ‘but, but, but….’ Having done a fair bit of EU speaking and hustings, I am familiar with the riposte and parry required in refuting arguments and arguing a case.

Deep listening is understanding what is behind the words a person is saying. Many have suggested that much of the ‘leave’ vote was an anti-establishment vote, not an anti-EU vote. Tim Farron has pointed out that worries over housing, lack of school places and an under-resourced NHS were salient factors in the ‘leave’ vote.

I would further suggest that fear is behind many of the views of those who voted against the referendum. We live in a global world, a shrinking world, one that is quickly changing with technological advances. Those who voted leave, among them the majority older people, I suggest would like a return to a simpler world of pen and paper, not email, where everyone knows everyone in the village and stays there their entire life. But that is not the world young people live in – we train in different cities and countries, we work around the UK and in the rest of the world, we fall in love and have relationships which transcend borders. Younger people understand and embrace a fluid, global world. Many older people are frightened by it.

So in moving forward, I suggest deep listening needs to take place: within families broken by this vote; within communities driven apart; and within the wider United Kingdom which is divided by national votes. We need to listen to why people voted the way they did – what their concerns and fears really are. And express to them in a kind and gentle way what our concerns and fears are. It is in having deep, listening conversations that we might be able to move forward.

Working together for the common good is something those of all political parties wish to achieve. I am hoping that as Liberal Democrats we can be a positive, pro-active force for letting our values of fairness, freedom and community help bring healing to this troubled land.

Environmental concerns, personal freedoms, fighting discrimination and building a more inclusive and equal society does not change whether we are in or out of Europe. From my point of view, being in Europe would make all of these goals easier to achieve. But the goals remain nevertheless, and we need to continue to fight for the values we believe in.

I would encourage all of you to find ways to bring your communities together. Explore inter-generational initiatives where young and old work together, learn together and listen to each other. Provide ways which bring those of different cultural backgrounds together, building relationships and appreciation of our rich, multi-cultural society. And, perhaps most tricky, creatively think of ways we can bridge the class divide, so that those who have understand and listen to the concerns of those who have not. Many ‘working-class’ communities voted ‘leave’ and need to be heard.

Everyone one of us needs to do all we can to build a more cohesive, inclusive and integrated society where all are welcome, valued and listened to.

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at

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  • James Hicklin 3rd Jul '16 - 10:19am

    What a patronising attitude to those who disagree with you. You dismiss Leavers as people who are afraid of the world, too old and parochial to cope. You seem to be suggesting that your supporters engage in therapeutic interventions to bridge the gap in our society: “Many ‘working-class’ communities voted ‘leave’ and need to be heard”.
    But the leavers have been heard. They won. It’s Remainers who seem to have the problem. They can’t accept that they lost. That’s why they are desperately trying to find ways to invalidate the result, to suggest that Leavers suffer from a form of false consciousness caused by their ignorance, narrow-mindedness and prejudice. These Remainers are all in favour of democracy as long as the masses vote the right way. Would you be advocating a healing process if Remain had won 52/48? I suspect you’d have been saying good riddance to Farage and co. Working class Leave votes are just as authentic and valid as any other. Why don’t you just respect those people’s views and offer therapeutic interventions to other bewildered remainers.
    For the record, yes, I am old (68), I live in “The North”, I voted leave and so did my local authority area. But I am not afraid and I reckon I have as good an understanding of the issues as any non-EU specialist. I hold an honours degree and a masters, I have worked as an economist and policy specialist in the public sector, taught in two universities and served as an elected member on two local authorities. In 1975 I was active in the Remain campaign. My youthful enthusiasm gradually waned as the EEC became the EU and thus increasingly remote, unaccountable, undemocratic and out of touch with the realities of the globalised world. If you want to understand my reasons for voting Leave read Larry Elliott, Roger Bootle, Chris Bickerton and Peter Mair.

  • Stevan Rose 3rd Jul '16 - 10:22am

    Excellent article Kirsten. One word missing: compromise. Listening is no good if the purpose is just to work out better counter-arguments; you have to be willing to take actions that may not be ideal in the short-term but will get us where we want to be in the end with broad consensus.

  • nigel hunter 3rd Jul '16 - 10:57am

    I am 68. I have an Honours degree. I live in the ‘North’I worked in a number of social caring fields. Fear of the future and loss of identity confuses, disturbs many. Stability as we become mature is what we prefer not change. However the world is rapidly changing, some can adapt others find it hard. The uncertainties of today’s world is a challenge for us all. Yes compromise, the coming together of ALL parts of society is needed.

  • While there are a lot of good things in this article, it kind of comes across as “old people are wrong, young people are right, and what’s required is for the young people to understand the old people’s fears more and then gently explain to them why they are wrong”.

    I am possibly well placed to see both side’s views here, since people my age voted exactly 50:50. Most people younger than me voted Remain, and most people older than me voted Leave. While I would agree that many older people have backward and reactionary views, I think it’s also worth pointing out that older people can also exhibit wisdom of a kind that young voters find more difficult.

  • Instead of trying to understand why the majority voted Leave, surely it is time to question why some people voted remain!

    Also most young people, 62%, did not vote. In other words most of them were actually pretty indifferent.

    Personally, I just want someone to trigger article 50 to put this debate out its misery.

  • Neil Sandison 3rd Jul '16 - 11:57am

    Good article by Kirsten .I don’t think we all fully realise just how disconnected our society has become . Brexit was a form of lashing out against a society where your concerns are no longer being listened to or acted upon .Where fear has replaced reason and social cohesion is breaking down .The once great Labour party which used to represent you is now significantly marginalised and involved in never ending internal party disputes. when you mention Labour now most people just shake their heads in despair .So can a more social liberal party begin to meet the challenges of reconnecting to ordinary working people or do we leave it to UKIP and the far left to occupy this ground.

  • Andrew McCaig 3rd Jul '16 - 12:01pm


    The latest data shows 70% of young people voted

    That accords with my experience on polling day. Almost all the young people had voted before we got to them, and some had voted by proxy for others who were away on the day. I have never seen such enthusiasm for voting in this age group

  • Andrew McCaig 3rd Jul '16 - 12:09pm

    I agree with Kirsten by the way.. We need to find real solutions to the problems faced by many of the disadvantaged in society, and many of those problems are more to do with the British government than the EU.
    Brexit campaigners need to appreciate as well that leaving the EU will leave many of those problems unaddressed, and make some of them worse in all probability. If that happens opinion will shift. If I was a Brexiteer I would be looking to really do something to help the disaffected so that I could give Brexit the credit for that. But I doubt that will be high on the Tory agenda, somehow..

  • Andrew McCaig 3rd Jul '16 - 12:16pm

    I can also appreciate very well why Glenn and his friends want to trigger Article 50 ASAP. They know that the referendum was a snapshot of public opinion on a particular day, 23rd of June 2016. It was like a giant 100% accurate opinion poll. Most of them were amazed at the result and want to take their chance while they can…The polls running up to the vote were inaccurate by 2-3% on average – so small changes of opinion can be discounted, but if the polls in September are showing a Remain lead of 20% we will be sure opinion has shifted and another referendum (or general election) would be justified. Of course bad things might happen in the EU and opinion could easily shift the other way. But the demographic shift is inexorably towards being in the EU

  • The fact that their is a clear power struggle within the EU, with the parliament and commission lining up against nation states. Already the commission is acting tough with Switzerland over access to the single market. So we have a case where the EU will try and spank the UK to scare the rest of EU into line, all its going to do is bread resentment and destroy any chance of reproachment. This goes to the basic problem with the EU the diverging interests of the nation states and the EU commission.

  • paul barker 3rd Jul '16 - 1:06pm

    There were many factors behind Leave voting but the common thread was negativity, Leave voters I spoke to seemed much clearer about what they were against than what they were for.
    Some of the most vehement came from unskilled working class (& often immigrant) backgrounds & seemed to want just to smash things up, to make the Middle Classes as poor & unhappy as them.

  • Andrew,
    Fair enough if the figures have changed. Either way it makes no difference. Leave won and now we expect to leave.

    And Andrew, I understand why you and your friends want to string it out. Basically you think votes should count for less according to age, social class etc and you hope you can coble together some excuse for ignoring the vote. Ironically, the EU accepts the results and actually wants Britain to trigger article 50 ASAP as well. So not only are you fighting to ignore a majority democratic decision, you’re fighting to stay in an EU that wants Britain to leave!

  • Kirsten johnson 3rd Jul '16 - 3:34pm

    Thank you all for reading and commenting – sorry for the delay in replying, but it is Sunday and my daughter had a sports’ fixture.

    James, I’m sorry if I came across as patronising, that was not intended! The Lib Dems accept the result but will continue to make the case for staying in Europe and it will be our main platform at the next GE.

    The point of this article was in finding ways to move forward on domestic policy issues and to restore relationships and communities driven apart by this vote. Stevan, thank you for mentioning building broad consensus and compromise. Yes, Neil, we are living in a disconnected society, fractured at many levels and between different groups of people.

    I had no intention of disparaging the vote of older people – I value and appreciate the wisdom older people bring to discussion. Older people is such a generalised term, encompassing a wide range of ages, so the reference in this blog was more the disparity between the generations in the Leave and Remain vote. It was not to disrespect the vote that many older people thoughtfully made. Tangentially, please see my thoughts on care and older people, and encouraging inter-generational relationship. . I do think there is work to be done in society, regardless of this vote, to bring generations together.

    It is through discussions such as these that we can, perhaps, find some common ground and a way forward.

  • Jayne Mansfield 3rd Jul '16 - 10:40pm

    @ James Hicklin,
    Thank you for directing us to the authors who have influenced you. I have only managed to skim read a few articles and I would like to read more.

    However, the late Peter Mair seems to put the blame for many of the things that people are concerned about and our present situation regarding the EU, on the shoulders of our elected politicians who divested themselves of unpopular decision, and instead directed blame from those decisions on to the EU, This is what I believe still happens, and why I voted remain.

    I also expected globalisation and its effects to continue whatever the vote, because it suits the powerful for it to do so.

    In my opinion, it is our elected politicians that we need to take to task. The common enemy seems to be our own political elites and not the EU elites. It is they who have distanced themselves from their party’s voters and forged a space for the political right and extreme right both in the UK and across Europe.

    I also do not know how a country or state can function without bureaucrats to carry out the political will of our elected representatives, nor how politicians can function properly without some input of ‘unelected experts’ who offer expertise to politicians expert opinion is needed, including experts in that most dismal and fallible of social sciences, economics.

  • Andrew McCaig 3rd Jul '16 - 11:28pm


    No, I think all votes should count equally, regardless of age or social class. The referendum result was clear, if close. I merely pointed out that the referendum was a snapshot of opinion on a particular day and if was clear in September that public opinion had changed significantly towards Remain, it would be a little strange to hold the British people to a result they no longer believed in… Perhaps you think that would be perfectly reasonable, but I am pretty sure that had the result gone the other way on the 23rd, Leave campaigners would be saying EXACTLY the same thing, and pressing for a new referendum (in fact Farage said just that when he thought he had lost)

    I do note however that amongst those calling for delay until 2017 is Michael Gove – the process of leaving is going to be long and painful and any sensible politician would want to put the negotiating team team together before starting, and also create some sort of consensus about what we actually want from the negotiations, since the referendum gave no clarity whatsoever on that. That consensus should if possible have the support of more than 52% of the British people…

    Re the EU, generally they are devastated we are leaving, but since the current situation is destabilising they want us to get on with it. They also have all the expert negotiators in place, which we do not, so on pragmatic grounds they think they will make it easier for themselves if they bounce us into the process ASAP. Perhaps your view is “Leave and be damned to any future relationship”? But I doubt if that is what the majority of British people want..

    On demographics the proportion of people who have been to University increases every year (less than 5% of people over 75 went to university, for example), and that demographic trend will increase the pro-EU vote every year. That is not at all a value judgement about who votes what, just a statement of fact

  • Andrew,
    Fair enough up to a point. Although? Actually! I was right first time. Most youngsters did not vote. Also I would argue that whilst less people used to go to university, university wasn’t an industry that seems to be based on keeping kids off the dole and indebting them at the same time. I went in the early 1990s and believe it or not all your tuition fees were still paid and you even got a student grant. Dude, the EU stuff is not much over twenty years old(1/11/93) and, actually, a good proportion of the major changes are under ten years old, dating all the way back to the dim distant past of the Lisbon Treaty in ye olde 2007. On Top of that, I’d say I’ve got teenage kids. Love em’ to bits. Do I think they represent the dawn of enlightenment? No so much so.

    But more in importantly Leave won and we will leave the EU.

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