The Praxis of Listening in Feminist-Relational Research

The Praxis of Listening in Feminist-Relational Research

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 3, Spring 2021

Author(s): Christiane Boehr

Dr. Christiane Boehr is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati. She teaches undergraduate courses in English Composition, Professional, Technical and Scientific Writing and is an instructor for German at the Tri-State German-American Society in Park Hills, Kentucky. Her research interests include feminist rhetoric, relational context, and writing as an embodied experience.

Abstract: This essay reflects on the rewards and challenges in using close, recursive listening as a feminist-relational practice in conducting qualitative research. Drawing on examples from a case study on women writing in community, I argue that rigorous, associative listening practices create a holistic portrayal of participants and sustain a respectful, power-sharing ethos. Specifically, discussing Carol Gilligan’s Listening Guide as a voice-centered analytical tool, I advocate for the praxis of critical and mindful listening as an organizing principle to create knowledge, make meaning, and reveal truths that might otherwise remain hidden.

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I sat in a circle of women I had never met before. Strangers to each other, we had gathered to sample a themed writing course about women and aging at a non-profit communal writing center called Women Writing for (a) Change® (WW). We engaged in freewriting about our current and future lives, or simply followed our muse, and then shared passages with the group who were encouraged to take notes. Listening to women’s reflections—for example, how life was supposed to be about them, their dreams, even as they shared life with others—and noting the phrases that resonated within the group created an intellectual and emotional connectivity among us (Blewett and Boehr 24-5). In reading back, women collectively crafted a new text woven from shared experiences. Intrigued by this dynamic relational environment, I decided to dedicate my dissertation research to explore women’s motivations, experiences, and responses to writing in a gendered community (Enabling Spaces 22(1)). Focusing on three women who had suffered traumatic experiences, I knew that the praxis of engaged listening needed to build the framework of my methodology (75).

As a non-native speaker of English who has lived in different countries, I am sensitive to difference and change. I was curious to examine what writing towards change can mean to individuals and how it may connect with rhetorical practices and surroundings at WW. As a participant observer, I engaged in class activities and conducted semi-structured interviews with ten selected participants, eager to learn about their responses to practices and interactions. Specifically, I wished to excavate women’s voices from enforced or chosen silences and make them heard (10-1).

Writing scholars Beth Daniell and Peter Mortensen posit that research as an “accumulation of knowledge about gendered literacy is not aimed at constructing generalizations about women . . . [but] about putting diverse representations of women’s literacy practice on display so that we can begin to understand how literacy rewards women and what it costs them” (emphasis original, 31). To me, “and” was the operative word. To reveal the many aspects of gendered literacy, particularly to recover and amplify women’s voices, we need to listen closely and empathically. In this essay, I reflect on my experience using Carol Gilligan’s(1) voice-centered Listening Guide (LG) as an analytical method to deeply engage in listening to women’s stories and remain alert to contextual elements and my own positionality.

Psychologists Jeanne Marecek, Michelle Fine, and Luise Kidder suggest that qualitative research aims to “unravel mysteries, to be surprised and jostled by what turns up . . . embark[ing] on an intellectual adventure without a map or even a clear destination” (31). As I unraveled the stories of participants in this study, I was moved by the intensity with which women relived their stories and lifted the protective layers from their truths about audience, environment, and change—dimensions that proved important across all participants. I felt empathy and bewilderment, even irritation, during these interviews. Inhabiting the roles of a participant, interviewer, and analyzer taught me to listen with attention, care, and critical self-reflection.

I remember sympathizing with one woman as she talked about loss—her absentee father, her self-value, and ultimately her physical voice as a psychosomatic reaction (Enabling Spaces 143(2)). I recall becoming distracted, even irritated, as another participant kept interrupting and talking over my voice (148). I realized that I physically shifted away from one interviewee and needed to remind myself to keep an open mind while she expressed her conservative political beliefs and controversial view of feminism in what I perceived as an aggressive manner (100). Using Gilligan’s(2) LG as an analytical method helped me to probe into women’s stories and examine the different dimensions of voice in a relational and sociocultural context. Paying attention to these dimensions enriched my stance of empathy and engaged openness as a feminist-relational researcher (Schultz 2003; Ratcliffe 2005) and guided me towards a deeper connectivity and understanding, particularly in difficult and controversial communications.1

A Polyphonic Relational Method

After each class session, I wrote reflective personal vignettes to maintain a record of my observations, emotions, and positionality. I also kept a journal to help me organize my thoughts and keep track of arising questions and concerns. Jotting down random notes and documenting the decisions I made along the way helped me to funnel my emotional reactions to women’s stories and make meaning. After the 2016 presidential election, I wrote about the “shock, disbelief, and a highly emotional atmosphere . . . One woman cried and articulated her shock and grief about the situation . . . . [while another] expressed discomfort with last week’s discussion about the two presidential candidates. She wrote that as a Republican, whose views about candidates and politics differed from most women’s, she had felt lectured and disenfranchised. She had kept her silence. I asked myself whether this particular woman had not felt safe and trusting enough in the circle as a container or safe holding space of their words to speak out against others, to speak a different truth” (Personal Vignette).

In the 1980s, Gilligan’s LG was designed as a feminist relational method to surface the voices of those who had been muffled or silenced by socio-cultural contexts. As my research focused on three women who had survived traumatic experiences, I was particularly interested in exploring what helped them break their silences and embrace change (75-6). Gilligan, et al. emphasize that the LG “is a method of psychological analysis that draws on voice, resonance, and relationships as ports of entry into the human psyche” (“On the Listening” 157). While paying attention to presence, silences, suggestions, and interruptions in interview situations represents good practice in qualitative research (Lucas and Strain 269), tuning into the nuances of participants’ articulations of self in connection to others challenges a researcher to further engage with the whole person in context. This associative approach expands the notion of voice as it analyzes narrative “for understanding the ways research participants make meaning of their experiences” and surroundings (Sorsoli and Tolman 497(1)). Specifically, Gilligan aimed to establish a non-binary, not masculine gendered, approach to examine voice in its complexity so that researchers can explore the interactive dynamic of emotion and reason, self and others, seclusion and context. Analyzing voice as a multilayered and corporeal form of communication allowed me to tune into women’s realities, revealing the interconnection between different voices, and how they may align, contradict, “interrupt or silence one another or weave in and out . . . in counterpoint” in their struggle to make sense of the world (“The Listening Guide” 70(3)). Engaged and mindful listening helped me to follow this meandering path, while its recursive and rigorous process demanded my full attention on a psychological, intellectual, and emotional level.

For the semi-guided interviews, I had prepared an Interview Guide that focused on my overarching research question broken into smaller, open-ended ones “to orient the interviewee and engage . . . her with . . . [my] research interest” and make her feel comfortable (Josselson 41). Taking handwritten notes of reoccurring terms and phrases helped me to stay focused and develop further, “experience-near” questions that evolved from each situation (47).

Analytical Rigor as Feminist Ethos

The LG(4) demands a minimum of four successive readings, called listenings, of each verbatim transcribed interview. Each listening focuses on a different lens to illuminate the dimensions of participants’ inner thoughts, feelings, and reactions to reliving events and the interview situation.2 In the first listening for the plot, I aimed to identify major themes that emerged from the narrative. Leaning on entries in my journal, I reflected on the relational aspects that framed the interviews to remain critically aware of my own emotions and stance. This listening served as a critical apparatus to support a feminist-relational approach and limit the risk of overlaying the interviewee’s voice with mine. Its self-reflective mode and attention to contextual elements prepared further interpretative entry points to make audible the different strands of identified voices. As I was reading, I color coded line by line what I heard as evolving and reoccurring topics. I marked key words and added comments in the margins as to how topics may connect to my research interest and develop into major themes. Transferring these color-coded and loosely grouped dimensions to a different sheet of paper served as a mnemonic visualization, a colorful map to detect places of interest for further analysis.

In the second listening, I focused on distilling participants’ I-voices from the text as a representation of self in context. According to Gilligan, “voice is embodied and resides in language . . . ground[ing] psychological inquiry in physical and cultural space” (“The Listening Guide” 69(5)). In other words, voice provides ways to explore how a person experiences the self in relation to surroundings, documenting “the interplay of inner and outer worlds” in their complexities (69(5)). Extracting each I-phrase (pronoun and verb) and “record[ing] these phrases in the order of their appearances in the passage” created an associative path of the individual psyche (Gilligan and Eddy 78). The distillation of self from other voices also helped to identify competing positions that might warrant further exploration. Re-reading my color-coded lines and following each voice strand at a time, I then marked other pronouns and their respective verbs in the passage. In so doing, I followed the I-voice, or “self voice,” alongside a potentially contemplative or outreaching You-voice and other personal pronouns and documented them in separate lines (Sorsoli and Tolman 502(2)). The resulting I-poems verbally and visually revealed women’s presentations of self in relation to others. For example, as Anne talked about her depression and writing as a lifeline within her isolation, the corresponding I-poem visualized her solitude in one singular column of I-phrases: “I lived alone/I felt/I felt terrible/I had no voice/I had no audience” (lines 529-31(1)). In contrast, when talking about a receptive audience and writing in community, she shifted to present tense, and her words exude joy and anticipation: “I can play/I can create/I can design words/I can feel good” (lines 556-60(1)). Probing deeper into aspects of community, her depiction of self becomes more nuanced, shifting from a reflective self voice, “I have to go back/I have a feeling/. . ./I think” (lines 694-704(1)), to desiring a space in which women can grow together: “We are connected/We live in community/We all are programmed/We need other people” (lines 697-8(1)).

Tuning into the rhythm, moves, and use of pronouns in women’s voices during the third (and fourth) listening for counterpoint, I followed their close dance in relation to my research interest. Innovative to the LG, this step employs “the musical aspect of listening . . . for nuance, for modulations and silences” to complicate findings and validate complexity (“The Listening Guide” 72(6)). Focusing on passages with multilayered strands of identified voices, I re-listened to one at a time for potential tensions and contradictions between them. This phase challenged me the most as I felt drawn into women’s stories. Anne’s emotional intensity still resonated within me, and I wrestled with her words to make meaning, reflecting that “writing is a tool, but a receptive audience is an umbilical cord to the world . . . Despite my temporary disconnection, or rather irritation because of being talked over, I feel deeply connected when she describes her suffering in loneliness, writing to her self, feeling almost schizophrenic, and hoping that God—someone—would listen” (lines 531-2(2); Personal Journal).

In Anne’s story, the first listening had identified three major thematic voices: breaking isolation, writing as a journey towards self-discovery, and change. The second listening had confirmed her goal to escape physical and emotional seclusion and the joyful experience of a new-found receptive audience. Writing was her lifesaver, and she seemed ready to experiment with language and share her stories with a wider audience. However, I sensed a tension in her voice of change as it remained intertwined with the strands of self-discovery, the need for a non-judgmental audience, and issues of gender. The contrapuntal listening revealed that she still needed the safety of a gendered space to continue on her journey and strengthen her confidence to, eventually, reach outward.

Listening and Change

As I worked on the final cross-case analysis, I realized a change in my sensitivity to the words of others and reflected how the LG might be used in other interactions and research. Listening repetitively made me re-think my positionality, question preconceived notions, and double-check associations. In what other situations might learning to listen instill this urgency to remain open and connected to women’s different truths as a manifestation of respect? How else might we use recursive listening to explore the interconnection between women’s self-portrayals, silences, and experiences of self among others? What other possibilities might this method offer for difficult kinds of communication?

I realize that without listening for tension in intersecting voices, I would have missed important insights, such as Anne’s need for the shelter of a women-only space, or another woman’s vulnerability and self-deprecation veiled by what I had initially interpreted as aggressiveness. I encourage others to explore how the praxis of listening offers socio-political agency and propels feminist research to make heard the voices of marginalized populations and reveal opportunities for growth deriving from difference.

End Notes

  1. See Enabling Spaces, pp. 106-60, for the in-depth analyses of three women; see pp. 161-207 for the analysis across participants. -return to text
  2. See Enabling Spaces, pp. 67-105, for methodology. -return to text

Works Cited

  • Anne (pseudonym). Personal Interview. 5 December 2016. -return to text (1) or (2)
  • Blewett, Kelly, and Christiane Boehr. “Women Writing for (a) Change: Nurturing Voices, Enriching Lives.” 3 December 2014. Topics in Composition, U of Cincinnati, Student Paper. -return to text
  • Boehr, Christiane. Enabling Spaces: A Rhetorical Exploration of Women Writing in Community. 2019. University of Cincinnati, PhD dissertation. OhioLINK Electronic Theses & Dissertations Center. -return to text (1) or (2)
  • —. Personal Journal. 26 May 2017. -return to text
  • —. Personal Vignette. 14 Nov. 2016. -return to text
  • Daniell, Beth, and Peter Mortensen, editors. Women and Literacy: Local and Global Inquiries for a New Century. Taylor and Francis, 2007. -return to text
  • Gilligan, Carol. “The Listening Guide Method of Psychological Inquiry.” Qualitative Psychology, vol. 2, no. 3, 2015, pp. 69-77. doi: 10.1037/qup0000023 -return to text (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), or (6)
  • —, et al. “On the Listening Guide: A Voice-Centered Relational Method.” Qualitative Research in Psychology: Expanding Perspectives in Methodology and Design, edited by Paul M. Camic, Jean E. Rhodes, and Lucy Yardley, American Psychological Association, 2003, pp. 157-72. -return to text
  • —, and Jessica Eddy. “Listening as a Path to Psychological Discovery: An Introduction to the Listening Guide.” Perspectives on Medical Education, vol. 6, no. 2, 2017, pp. 76-81. doi: 10.1007/s40037-017-0335-3 -return to text
  • Josselson, Ruthellen. Interviewing for Qualitative Inquiry. The Guilford Press, 2013. -return to text
  • Lucas, Brad, and Margaret M. Strain. “Keeping the Conversation Going: The Archive Thrives on Interviews and Oral History.” Working in the Archives. Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, edited by Alex Ramsey et al., SIUP, 2010, pp. 259-77. -return to text
  • Marecek, Jeanne, Michelle Fine, and Louise Kidder. “Working between Two Worlds.” From Subjects to Subjectivities, edited by Deborah L. Tolman and Mary Brydon Miller, New York UP, 2001, pp. 29-41. -return to text
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. SIUP, 2005. -return to text
  • Schultz, Katherine. Listening. A Framework for Teaching Across Differences. Teachers College Columbia UP, 2003. -return to text
  • Sorsoli, Lynn, and Deborah L. Tolman. “Hearing Voices. Listening for Multiplicity and Movement in Interview Data.” Handbook of Emergent Methods, edited by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy, The Guildford Press, 2008, pp. 495-515. -return to text (1) or (2)