Listening Circles

Listening and Speaking Differently – A Space for All Voices

Liz and Vic O’Callaghan come with a background in education in schools, pre-service teacher education, system advisement, school leadership and consultancy.

Together they have collaborated in the design and implementation of Restorative Practices in Australia. These combined skills have been instrumental in building relational capacity in many communities in Australia and other countries such as USA, Britain and Canada.

Vic and Liz have been married forty three years. They understand each other deeply, and finish each other’s sentences. But through a talk in the Marriage Encounter program, they discovered a unique manner of listening. And it has been transformational. Together with Restorative Practices, it has been foundational to the development of Listening Circles.

Liz and Vic have much life experience between them and have participated in various Catholic ministries across New South Wales. They have worked in education, leadership and Catholic communication. They have served together in Marriage Encounter, RCIA, Antioch, Barnabas and baptism groups. They have taught restorative practices to many schools across Australia. More recently, however, they discovered a need for the kind of transformative listening that had become key to their relationship.

In 2012, there was a lot of talk among Catholics about the sexual abuse crisis. This was before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Feelings of hurt and anger were brewing. Vic and Liz said to each other, “No one is talking about this. What about the people in the pews? Someone should do something!” They soon realised that they were the ‘someones’. Their training in restorative practices was key to this, and they spent a couple of years building a team and preparing and designing the process. ’Listening Circles’ is the result.  

The most important need in such sensitive listening spaces is safety. People can be anxious, worried and fear being traumatised. So Liz and Vic strove to create a sacred environment where different views can be voiced in “absolute safety at all levels.” It is designed so that everyone feels that they can trust, are cared for and that they matter. This involves a clear set up, a beginning in prayer, a modelling of the process, agreements, facilitated small groups, unbroken listening, psychologists at hand, and a conclusion involving thanks and celebration. After the potentially difficult and powerful listening process, this last step of celebration creates a gentle transition back to normality. Sharing food together and relating in new ways to each other is “quite eucharistic.” 

Vic and Liz are clear about the need to have the voices and leadership of both men and women in this process. As a married couple, they see different things because they come from distinct positions. They have found that because they have diverse ways of seeing the world, they bring different things to the table. Yet traditional voices and leadership in our Church are predominantly male. In liturgies, parishioners go to listen and speak as a chorus, but don’t have the opportunity to speak. “We also need to give some consideration to gender variations in the Church and in the world.” They believe that this should be reflected at all levels in the Church.

Therefore, Liz and Vic work as a team. When they began the work of Listening Circles, they needed both a woman and a man to model the process. Consequently, a priest and a female psychologist helped build trust and understanding by sharing how they have been impacted by the sexual abuse crisis within institutions and in other settings. They now train other Lead Sharers as well as Small Group Facilitators to provide an authentic and safe experience of listening and being heard. 

Such ministry is vital to our Church today. Deep listening is healing, reciprocal and transforms all those who participate. May we create spaces for men and women to lead and listen, building on the perspectives and gifts that each has to offer.

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