Creating spaces for listening – what does it mean and what does it take? By Charlie Jones, Brigid Russell, and King-Chi Yau

We have something to say about the value and the potential of listening. It isn’t just us doing the talking, though. What we’d like to share is inspired by insights from over 350 ‘Spaces for Listening’ convened weekly over Zoom since May 2020, and it draws on the experiences of over 1600 people from all over the UK and beyond.[1]

In this short series of blogs we explore different insights, learning, and possibilities arising from these many individual and collective experiences of #SpacesForListening, both the content and the process of it. Our intention is to provide a springboard for dialogue about what it takes to listen and engage more deeply in conversation with each other, and what it could mean for us across our organisations and communities.

What is it about listening?

When we create space in which we genuinely listen to each other, we open up the possibilities for connection and trust. We enable ourselves to hear our vulnerabilities and what feels important, both to ourselves and others. We get to experience both our commonality, and our differences. It all starts with the quality of our listening, and our appreciation for each other. This experience enables us to go on and have conversations elsewhere which are more real, purposeful, and meaningful; and better conversations lead to more effective relational working.

Our experiences throughout the pandemic have not created the need to listen to one another and feel heard. That is a long-standing need, and one that is poorly met for many of us, certainly in our work lives. Undoubtedly though, our collective and diverse experiences of the pandemic have shone a light on how important it is for us all to have places we can go to say out loud what we are thinking and feeling, be listened to without interruption, and also hear where other people are coming from.

Many of our workplace conversations feel constrained and superficial, and this leaves many of us frustrated that we are not engaging with the issues which really matter. So much of the time when someone else is talking, we’re just waiting for a gap to jump in with what we think we need to say rather than truly listening to how we are feeling. We all feel the pressure to rush to solutions, rather than sitting for longer simply listening to each other’s ideas and experiences. We are left feeling unheard and unsupported. We tend to blame a lack of time, or problems with culture or style of leadership.

What if there was a different way to gather together, and share how we are really feeling about our experiences? A different quality of space where we could share what we are thinking about, and feel listened to and heard – much like sitting in a circle together round the campfire.

What does it take to create spaces for listening?

In writing this first blog, we carry a concern that something living and full of human potential and possibility gets reduced to a linear intervention or packaged in a ‘how to’ guide. Our challenge is to share ideas that may be helpful to people in healthcare and related systems, while respecting and honouring the spirit of #SpacesForListening. It’s hard to describe in writing because somehow it makes static something that is naturally dynamic.

It’s a bit like if we wanted to write about a campfire as the beating heart of a community.  We wouldn’t overly focus on how you build a good fire, and the science of why fire burns. Of course it matters to have a good fire. But it isn’t all about the fire itself. We’d think about how the fire functions as a core part of the community: it’s a focal point, an energy provider, a bringer-together. And once the community is alive, all kinds of unknowable things become possible, as new connections are made. Friendships form, relationships grow. These are not about the fire, but the fire was a key part of creating the original conditions. We see #SpacesForListening as being a bit like this.

Picture of a bonfire

It is not our intention to make bold claims about the impact of #SpacesForListening. When we started out, it seemed to meet a particular need for space to connect early on in the pandemic. And what we have found is that many people seem very interested both in participating in such spaces, and also in sharing the experience across their own networks. Now – more than three years on – those connections are still happening and growing. It is a bit counter-cultural. A space where there is equality of participation, nobody dominates, everyone can participate. An intentionally-created space of calmness and connection within a system which is full-on busy.

Our experience of #SpacesForListening is that it potentially adds something to the mix of ‘creating the conditions’ for better connections, for understanding each other more. It is part of a better how, it is not an end in itself. Our experiences show that it is very possible for a small group to meet and quickly establish enough safety and trust to have an exchange that upholds our mutual dignity, and through which we can share our real thoughts and feelings meaningfully. What we have found is that there is a real yearning out there to participate in and create such spaces.

Our experience has been, and continues to be, unfolding. We provide some insights from a thematic analysis of #SpacesForListening over the past 3 years or so later in this blog. First though, we’d like to share more about why and how we started convening #SpacesForListening back in May 2020.

#SpacesForListening – what and why?

Back in the early days of the pandemic, there was lots of chatter on Twitter about the need for more understanding and connection. In such an open and dispersed forum the chat felt limited in terms of depth, but the connections felt promising. That’s how and why we started #SpacesForListening – as a simple way to create a safe space over Zoom for deeper conversation, and meaningful connection, amongst groups of people choosing to gather together.

#SpacesForListening is a simple, lightly-structured process which creates a space in which we each have an equal opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings. It is about starting where we are, and sharing what is going on for each of us. We participate as people; we do not introduce ourselves by our job titles.

Who participates? From the outset, we have approached people directly on Twitter/X to participate, and we still make those connections regularly. Increasingly people approach us too to take part, either having seen other people sharing their individual reflections by using the hashtag #SpacesForListening or via a wider ripple-out of personal connections. We do not have a website, and we have not actively promoted it. We want people who come along to do so with genuine curiosity and interest, aiming for a ‘slow burn’ rather than any kind of formulaic or controlled ‘roll out’.

The structure of three rounds of timed contributions (2 minutes per person, in each round) provides a contained space in which we can each choose to open up if we want to and explore our ideas and feelings. Each space comprises a group of eight people, meeting together over Zoom, for about 50 minutes in total. When the eighth person has spoken in Round 3, that is the end of the session.

Each one of us takes a turn in pre-set order; and in so doing, we each experience a level of listening, an equal chance to share, and a spirit of appreciation. We feel seen and heard. In turn, we each respond to the following prompts:

Round 1: How are you, and what’s on your mind?

Round 2: Any reflections or feelings in the light of Round 1?

Round 3: Anything to take away, and anything that has resonated, which you have appreciated?

It is fundamental that participation in a space is a voluntary choice. #SpacesForListening are unedited, and confidential. We share an information sheet describing the approach with each participant prior to the session. In that outline, we highlight that the space might enable thoughts and feelings to be expressed in ways that can feel moving, or even a little unsettling, and that we all need to be mindful of our own well-being. We remind people that any of us can say as much or as little as we like in our allotted 2 minutes, and anybody is free to ‘pass’ when it is their turn.

This is a space of peers, a facilitated session in which the facilitator is an equal participant, rather than an expert leading the session. All those participating have chosen to trust the process enough. To be “brave enough to join, brave enough to share” (in the words of one early participant).

We acknowledge that we may be ‘preaching to the converted’ in some ways, in that the people choosing to take part are likely to be sympathetic to relational working. Our hope is that each individual participant, having experienced #SpacesForListening, may bring the approach (or aspects of it) into their ways of working with groups of people in their local context. A gentle form of momentum.

We believe that the best way to understand the quality and potential of this approach is to experience it. No special training is required to facilitate. The simplicity of the approach means that the facilitation role can be picked up by anyone within a team, or group, interested in setting up #SpacesForListening, so long as they stick to the core principles of the approach.

Early impressions

From early on, many of the people who’ve taken part have voluntarily shared reflections on their personal experiences of listening and feeling listened to in Tweets using the hashtag #SpacesForListening. The self-generated nature of this tweet content differs from more typical forms of ‘evidence’, and aligns with the voluntary and equal ethos of #SpacesForListening.

After the first six months or so, we looked at all the #SpacesForListening tweets up to that point. This first analysis[2] (of 138 tweets between May and October 2020) identified three key themes, all of which still resonate nearly three years on.

An appreciation for being listened to, and the power of listening.

Many people mentioned that in our work conversations, we often feel the need to act in some ‘helpful’ way.  In contrast, the experience in #SpacesForListening is that listening and feeling heard is impactful enough. It is refreshing to be involved in a conversation that does not need to lead to concrete actions, in which there is no pressure to take responsibility or to offer others a ‘fix’. Instead, we experience being listened to, and hearing ourselves think out loud; we reach our own insights and find our own way.

An appreciation for a sense of real connection.

The opportunity in each #SpacesForListening is to make a meaningful connection within a short space of time. Many have been positively surprised at how quickly a feeling of trust and safety is established within a group of relative ‘strangers’. Some participants have gone on to set up #SpacesForListening within their own team or organisation. Consistently the feedback is that it is equally possible to create a sense of safety, and appreciative connection, within a space comprising colleagues who know and work with each other.

An appreciation of the opportunity to pause and have space in the middle of a busy day.

The ‘cult of busy-ness’ is so predominant. People have commented on their appreciation of the ‘permission’ that #SpacesForListening seems to give us to take the time out for reflection, and just to be. They seem to find that the spaces feel human, safe, equal, caring, real, and honest. The essence of #SpacesForListening has always been listening and connection (rather than ‘well-being’ or ‘resilience’).

Insights three years on

We have now conducted a further review across the 690 tweets posted between May 2020 and May 2023. From the analysis, undertaken by King-Chi Yau, we have identified 12 themes comprising the relational, emotional, cognitive, and behavioural aspects of people’s experiences.[3] Each is outlined here with illustrative tweets (quoted in italics).

How we relate to each other in the space through shared experiences and connections:

  1. A depth of connection, through the commonality of human experience, which transcends work roles and identities.

“So good to connect and listen – recognising the commonality of experiences, feelings and emotions we share. We’re not alone…”

“A powerful reminder of the importance of connection and common humanity.” 

  1. A non-judgmental space which feels safe and accepting in a surprisingly short period of time.

“Incredible how a group of random people can connect so quickly and beautifully.”

“What a great session learning the art of listening and having the safe space to talk uninterrupted and without feeling unsure, insecure or uneasy.”

  1. An uplifting sense of community through the sharing of experiences with each other.

“The resonance and community created are life/soul breathing.”

“Powerful, authentic, uplifting, and motivating. I really appreciated the sense of psychological safety & community I’m left with a sense of gratitude & calm.”

How we feel emotional benefits in the space:

  1. A sense of emotional release, of feeling lighter and more hopeful.

“Come away feeling about two stone lighter, metaphorically.”

“It was emotional, uplifting, restoring and full of hope.”

  1. Feeling understood, valued, seen and heard by others.

“Reminded again of the uniqueness each person brings & the strength of connectedness I leave with.”

“Creating safe spaces for people to be vulnerable & authentic; & to ensure people feel respected, valued, heard & worthy – makes the world warmer, kinder & more compassionate.”

  1. Feeling thankful to and appreciative of others.

“Thank you (facilitator) and everyone else on #SpacesForListening this evening. The world is full of good people, and it’s very special to spend time with you all.”

“Thanks (facilitator) for the opportunity to share in this experience & for reminding me yet again of the positive power connecting with others can bring hope.”

How the space to think benefits our self-awareness and awareness of others:

  1. Space to notice and reflect on inner experiences.

“Have been reflecting on a brilliant face-to-face #SpacesforListening on Saturday, … creating a safe space + encouraging us to really hear one another.”

“Reflective mood this morning after a great #spacesforlistening session last night… It has helped me get in touch with an old habit that is getting in my way.”

  1. A chance to gain new insights in a space where no one is intentionally giving advice.

“People are rarely looking for advice. They’re looking to be heard. We’re so used to having our emotions & issues invalidated, it’s a fresh breath of air when someone just sits with us and says: ‘I get it. I hear you. That sounds unbelievably painful’.”

“The #spacesforlistening … is one of the most powerful reflective experiences I have ever had. So much so it’s taken me weeks to process it. Beautiful & deceptively simple producing complex insight & awareness.” 

  1. Recognition of the power and enabling potential of the simple act of listening, and being listened to.

“It was moving to listen, and to be listened to. So simple, so powerful.”

“So empowering to simply listen, not interrupt, and share. It reminded me that we never really know what anyone is going through and always hold that in mind.”

How it impacts on behaviours:

  1. People spontaneously share the benefits they have experienced.

“Wow. My second #spacesforlistening and I cannot recommend this enough. So moved, inspired, stretched, rejuvenated. … Best hour ever… Also… so many! Anyone … who is striving and needs space! It’s like a wild swim – but on zoom.”

“#spacesforlistening, the best 50 minutes of the week.”

  1. A way of setting aside time for well-being.

“Taking permission to invest in self-care.”

“It’s becoming an integral part of my self-care strategy.”

  1. Considering how to incorporate practices of listening and connecting into daily life.

“Lots to reflect on now, especially how we can more genuinely knit the warmth of human connections into the fabric of our daily working lives and relationships.”

“The social fabric supporting our mental health has been frayed & torn by the pandemic. The ongoing challenge is finding new ways to come together, re-weaving the weft & warp of daily routines to create new points of connection.”

What could this all mean in the context of Health and Care?

We started #SpacesForListening as a way to bring people together, a gentler more meaningful way to create a safe space and a deeper conversation. When we began, we only intended to do a few. It was so powerful that we did another, and another…

It isn’t just about the hour that eight people share together. Clearly that’s important. But it’s about what it enables – a community based on connecting through our shared humanity, while appreciating our unique experiences. This sense of connection as people, regardless of grade and profession, has huge relevance in a health and care context. Not in the form of ‘initiatives’ or projects, but as part of the underlying fabric, in the ways we come together consistently in our everyday working.

It is not a top-down “programme” or an “intervention” to be rolled out. It’s about taking things slowly, cultivating understanding, and valuing space. It thrives on the voluntary participation of individuals. #SpacesForListening serves as a testament to the power of our relationships in creating a ripple of change. The foundation and fuel for a living community, bringing together people whose paths would perhaps not otherwise cross – people from different organisations, sectors, cultures, and countries. A community in which we can feel held and supported to make sense of our experiences.

As the evidence of 690 #SpacesForListening tweets alone demonstrates, there are lots of meaningful experiences relating to presence, acceptance, and empathy. By letting go of the perceived obligation to offer soothing words, active support, or solutions, we discover that the act of attentive listening alone holds much potential. This feels particularly profound for people working in health and care who typically spend their days “fixing” issues for others. Letting go of that responsibility to “fix”, and just being present to listen and be interested, is a powerful feature of #SpacesForListening. We see and feel that in safe and non-judgmental spaces where nobody intentionally offers advice, we are each able to self-generate new perspectives and insights, both individually and collectively.

What could it mean for organisations if we all recognised the potential of this quality of listening more, in particular around a sense of connection, community, and agency? Our consistent experience is that it is possible to create a space which feels safe and trusting enough in a surprisingly short period of time, perhaps in sharp contrast with the prevailing belief that it takes a lot of time and expertise to create safety and trust. Perhaps it starts simply every time we listen attentively, empathetically, to each other, and in each moment of real connection?

What next?

Our hope with this blog is that it prompts conversations – about how things can be different. About how we can listen to each other with more care, curiosity, and attention. About how we don’t need to ‘fix’ each other to feel more human and connected. About how we can have better conversations in our organisations and across our communities. A living dialogue that can continue to unfold naturally, and in which we can participate, but which we do not (need to) control. This aligns with #SpacesForListening – and that camp fire. We can write a starting point in the form of a blog, but what grows from here – who knows?


If this has sparked your interest, we’d love you to join in the dialogue.

Building on the themes outlined in the blog, we’re keen to explore more about…

What are the collective implications of creating #SpacesForListening for groups and teams within organisations?

What might experiencing #SpacesForListening together mean for how people in professional roles and people accessing services engage with each other?

How could we bring this quality of listening into creating a better quality of dialogue?

What might it mean for how we interact across communities and in public spaces?

How could we surface and handle difference between us, and what might this mean in health & care, in all kinds of organisations, in political life..?

[1] For the rest of the blog we use the term #SpacesForListening which is how these sessions are referred to on Twitter.

[2] We would like to acknowledge and express gratitude to Makita Werrett for undertaking a thematic analysis of 138 Tweets containing the #SpacesForListening which were posted between 29th May and 16th October 2020.

[3] See the appendix for more details on the methodology used.

Appendix – on methodology for the evaluating and developing a thematic analysis of #SpacesForListening

  1. Database (search term; dates of coverage; language): Twitter (#SpacesForListening; 1st May 2020 – 12th May 2023 [3 years]; English)
  2. Exclusion criteria: (I) Tweets by #SpacesForListening creators excluded; (II) advertisements from #SpacesForListening organisers excluded; (III) replies to main Tweets excluded
  3. Full search strategy: (#SpacesForListening) until:2023-05-12 since:2020-05-01 -filter:replies
  4. Date of the last search: 12th May 2023
  5. Total Tweets found: 690



Photo of Charlie Jones

Charlie Jones

Charlie Jones leads a clinical psychology team in Southmead Hospital in Bristol. He has a passion for systemic and relational approaches to working in the NHS, and how we can create sustainable conditions for safe, honest conversations with both colleagues and patients. He is a dad with 8 year old twins.


Declaration of interests

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.

Photo of Brigid Russell

Brigid Russell

Brigid Russell is a coach and facilitator working with people across public and third sectors in Scotland. Over the past 3-4 years she has collaborated with Charlie Jones in convening weekly #SpacesForListening over zoom, listening to and connecting with many hundreds of people across the UK and beyond. She is passionate about creating more spaces for having more open conversations.


Declaration of interests

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.


Photo of King-Chi Yau

King-Chi Yau

Chi is a lecturer at UCL and a clinical psychologist who works with children and young people in the NHS. He is grateful to Brigid and Charlie for facilitating #SpacesForListening and feels fortunate to have been able to participate in some of these remarkable spaces. Chi is passionate about child wellbeing and believes that human connectedness is one of the crucial elements for healthy development.


Declaration of interests

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.

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