From Individualism to Collective Truth-listening: Transformative Listening in a Time of COVID-19

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Throughout March we will explore research design, with a focus on theory and conceptual frameworks. Find the unfolding series here. Given the changes we are all experiencing given the Covid 19 pandemic, MethodSpace is also offering guidance and resources about online instruction and research. Find help here. This post is from the Mentor in Residence for March, Dr. Sharon Ravitch.

The psyche is fascinating. As I sit trying to think about what to write for this blogpost as MethodSpace’s Methodologist-in-Residence in March—the month the COVID-19 global pandemic hit the US and changed our lives forever—my mind drifts to a light-filled classroom filled with curious people and passionate learning where I recall actually feeling my mind expand. I see now how that learning has changed my life and way of understanding the world. It was at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the year was 1993, and Dr. Carol Gilligan was teaching us about a relational feminist psychology framework for listening to people’s stories and about its attendant methodology, The Listening Guide, in her doctoral Clinical Interviewing seminar.

Some Context

Carol Gilligan’s (1982) book, In a Different Voice changed the field of psychology; it interrupted the paradigmatic exclusion of women and girls’ voices in psychological research. Carol developed the field of feminist relational psychology, and her influence on multiple fields across generations is immeasurable. Psychologists now widely agree with Carol’s once transgressive findings that women language our inner experiences in ways that are unique from men and that responsiveness in relationships and emotional intelligence are crucial elements of mental health that are vital to optimal development. I have integrated Carol’s generative framework into my own applied research including focused work on applied critical hermeneutics and phenomenological methodology in applied development work (Nakkula & Ravitch, 1998), critical qualitative research design (Ravitch & Carl, 2016; 2020), participatory and inquiry-based practitioner methodologies (Ravitch, 2014; Ravitch & Lytle, 2015), and critical leadership praxis (Pak & Ravitch, in review; Ravitch & Carl, 2019).

Relational Approaches to Research

My work as an applied researcher engaged in international development is deeply informed by a feminist relational approach to qualitative research, the seeds of which were planted and tended to by Carol through our decades-long conversations. Given my participatory work with communities, I have incorporated the frameworks of critical race theory and post-colonial studies into what I call a critical relational approach to research. This approach supports research that pushes against dominating and hegemonic societal forces and false grand narratives—so important in this scary political moment exacerbated by the recent pandemic—that seek to dehumanize, generalize, divide, and altogether “other” people; it examines the relational and broader structural dynamics between researchers and participants and participants with each other in relation to central phenomena of our research studies. The relational aspects of the research process—and product—with its methodological attunement to issues of power, identity, voice, and the need to contextualize interaction as a part of the inquiry, is at the heart of a critical relational qualitative research approach, which seeks to transform injustices (Ravitch & Carl, 2020).

A critical relational approach to qualitative research works from a standpoint of reciprocal transformation in which a researcher must be willing to be changed in meaningful ways through a dialectic of mutual influence with research participants and thought partners (Nakkula & Ravitch, 1998). This kind of reflexivity requires that researchers become vulnerable in ways that help us to be more authentic. Brave space research—a term I’m adapting from Arao and Clemens (2013) work on creating brave learning spaces—helps people to co-create norms for learning to understand people’s inner voices of struggle and fear, right now during this COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, so-called “safe spaces” actually tend to and reproduce privilege white male middle class communication preferences, which is both impositional and microaggressive.

Creating brave-space research, on the other hand, allows for a multiplicity of voices to shape the emotional environment. This approach requires that we learn to raise our thresholds for discomfort as we transform our praxis—which Freire (1970) conceptualizes as the generative intersection of reflection and action toward social transformation. Critical relational approaches to research are inquiry-based and discovery-oriented, they “[E]mphasize how data emerges out of co-created, embodied, dialogical encounters between researchers and co-researchers (participants). The researcher’s attention slides between the phenomenon being researched and the research relationship; between focusing on the co-researcher’s talk/thoughts/feelings and exploring the relationship between researcher and co-researcher as it unfolds in a particular context.” (Finlay, n.d.)

A Way into Listening to and for Complexity: The Listening Guide

Gilligan’s Listening Guide is a relational, feminist, qualitative research methodology. The Guide emerged from Carol’s development of feminist relational psychology methodology and is used across many disciplines to attend the non-linear voices within an individual’s psyche and therefore within the narratives they construct about themselves. This analytic approach provides steps to account for the relational reality that the interviewee’s story is co-constructed with the interviewer; its layered textual analysis enables a specific attention to this co-constructed aspect of interview data (Gilligan, 2015; Gilligan, Spencer, Weinberg, & Bertsch, 2003).

The Listening Guide resembles other qualitative methods in that it incorporates aspects of thematic narrative analysis with elements of a grounded theory approach, but differs in terms of how it incorporates a series of specific listenings, and in its framing of textual readings as “listenings” to connote a more active and relational sense-making about interview text (Gilligan & Eddy, 2017). The Guide is comprised of multiple, inter-related, and recursive listenings which are guided by 4 questions about voice and relationships, which set the purview of the inquiry: “Who is speaking to whom? In what body or physical space? Telling what stories about which relationships? In what societal and cultural frameworks?” (Gilligan & Eddy, 2017, p. 77). The researcher “listens to” (i.e., reads) a transcribed interview text at least 4 times to work towards an understanding of the multi-layered nature of an individual’s voice as it narrates self within personal, relational, temporal, and cultural contexts. Each listening has a unique focus but does not stand alone, rather the listenings are built upon and into each other.

Listening Guide Steps

The steps of the Listening Guide process include (1) listening for the plot, (2) listening for voice, (3) listening for contrapuntal voices, and (4) composing an analysis. This attention to voice, to its nuances, intricacies, and complexities, to the ways that voice is embedded in a larger whole of a person’s experience, in the complex terrain of their psyche, as well as the relational embeddedness of the interview event, is at the heart of the Listening Guide. This method is quite generative in my research; I use it to help me explore the intersection of individual, familial, group, social, organizational, and broader societal influences on people’s narratives. I use the Listening Guide within a larger data analysis process that includes open as well as structured readings and coding for themes (e.g., power) that relate to my conceptual framework. This resonates with Brené Brown’s idea that “Maybe stories are just data with a soul” and helps to liberate my mind from the weight of the social constructions that I’ve internalized about people and the world. And as people have begun to tell me stories of their COVID-19 experiences, I hear their narrations within a critical relational frame that helps me understand each person and what scares or concerns them more deeply that I might otherwise.

Couraging forward in traumatizing times

So why did my mind drift to Carol in that classroom 27 years ago? It is because Carol continues to be a light in dark times, a true luminary. And in these troubling and scary moments of this global pandemic, when the collective human psyche feels so vulnerable, and as we reach the fraught realization that we must return to the relationality we’ve lost in many aspects of life in the United States, the realization is re-born that it’s all about relationships. In every act of equity work and healing the world that I try to support, there is Carol lighting my way. We believe that together we can harness critical, empathic, contextualized, relational listening to become transformational truth-listeners for the world—we can offer these skills and framework to the world in times that need us to crowdsource skills. Being listened to and feeling heard invites healing, and intentional storytelling offers possibilities for relational and personal transformation. In that spirit, in these moments of individual and collective need to be heard, to tell and share our stories, to learn together, to transform our hurting selves and our hurting world, I think about the ways that this relational listening method can foment transformational rather than transactional interpretation, engagement, and reflection. In this spirit, I end with the words of Marge Piercy, who reminds us that “We seek not rest but transformation. We are dancing through each other as doorways.” May your research create doorways of learning, inquiry, and connection.

This piece has prompted the two of us to write an open letter to the world during this pandemic, so stay tuned! If you’d like to stay in touch, or have questions, follow me on Twitter @SharonRavitch.


Arao, B. & Clemens, K. “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue around Diversity and Social Justice” in The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators, ed. Lisa M. Landreman (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2013), 135-150.

Finlay, L. (n.d.). Relational research. Retrieved from

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum.

Gilligan, C. (1982/1993) In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, C. & Eddy, J. (2017). Listening as a path to psychological discovery: An introduction to the Listening Guide. Perspectives on Medical Education. Volume 6, Issue 2, pp. 76–81.

Gilligan, C. (2015). The Listening Guide method of psychological inquiry. Qualitative Psychology. Vol. 2, No. 1. pp. 69-77.

Gilligan, C., Spencer, R., Weinberg, M. K., & Bertsch, T. (2003). On the Listening Guide: A voice centered relational model. In P. M. Camic, J. E. Rhodes, & L. Yardley (Eds.), Qualitative research in psychology: Expanding perspectives in methodology and design (pp. 157–172). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.

Nakkula, M. J., & Ravitch, S. M. (1998). Matters of interpretation: Reciprocal transformation in therapeutic and developmental relationships with youth. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pak, K. & Ravitch, S.M. (2020, manuscript in review). Critical Leadership Praxis. New York, NY:

Columbia Teachers College Press, Practitioner Inquiry Series.

Ravitch S.M. & Carl, M.N. (2020). Qualitative research: Bridging the conceptual, theoretical, and

methodological. (significantly expanded 2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ravitch, S.M. & Carl, M.N. (2019). Applied research for sustainable change: A guide for education

leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Ravitch, S. M., & Lytle, S. (2015). Becoming practitioner-scholars: The role of practice-based inquiry in the development of educational leaders. Unpublished manuscript.

Ravitch, S. M. (2014). The transformative power of taking an inquiry stance on practice: Practitioner research as narrative and counter-narrative. Perspectives on Urban Education, 11(1), 5–10.

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