LEARNING TO LISTEN. Vuslat Doğan Sabancı is a former publisher, a business leader and a philanthropist. For more than a decade she has been Chair of the Board of Directors of Hürriyet (‘Liberation’) the most important daily newspaper in Turkey. Her newly formed Vuslat Foundation initiated its activities by presenting a work titled ‘The Listener’ by the sculptor Giuseppe Penone at the 2021 Venice Biennale of Architecture. A self-taught artist, Vuslat’s first solo show will be in London in April 2022.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Vuslat Doğan Sabancı this sculpture by Penone depicts a submerged tree with a very big stone sitting atop the trunk in its branches. What does it have to do with your Foundation?

I cannot imagine a better venue or a better project with which to start the Foundation, which is promoting generous listening around the globe.

This Biennale’s theme is: ‘How will we live together?’ and a very important component of living together is listening. The question is ‘How do we listen to each other so that we can co-exist?’ Giuseppe Penone’s installation is magical, poetic and simple, but yet also sophisticated. It makes you pause for a moment and wonder why this tree is holding a stone up in its branches and why it’s rooted in the water.

Can we listen deeply to ourselves, to each other and to nature?

The connections that can be created through listening exist not only amongst individuals, but also, very importantly, with nature. Listening is usually perceived interpersonally, but there is so much wisdom to be gained from listening to nature. Trees listen to all living beings, hold secrets, and provide a safe space. In many older cultures people gather around trees to have conversations. Giuseppe Penone’s installation is a symbol of our invitation to people to reflect on this. We will continue this with different workshops, talks and meetings.

Did people listen more in the past than today?

When life was slower there were encounters in town squares, in circles, in cafes, and people were more in touch with nature than we are today. The huge populations now living in very crowded cities have very small interaction with nature and very limited time to pause.

How did you realise that you hadn’t listened deeply enough within yourself?

The act of journalism has a lot to do with how I have come to this mission. Journalists usually concentrate on another person, but at a certain point I needed to zoom out and see what I could do better in my life. That took me to a series of unplanned ‘listening journeys’ of pure discovery, with no obligation to write a piece for the newspaper. This opened another door. I realised that as I listened to other people I also listened to myself, because I am also an actor in that listening.

“How do we listen to each other so that we can co-exist?”

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Giuseppe Penone and Vuslat Doğan Sabancı with ‘The Listener’ in Venice.

Vuslat Doğan Sabancı, as a journalist you have fought battles for human rights and women’s rights. How did you harness the power of the media to solve important social issues?  

When we started the domestic violence campaign in 2003 it was a taboo in Turkey – as it is in many places around the world. Domestic violence happens inside the family and you don’t talk about it. The editors hesitated at first, as it might have had negative connotations for the paper, but eventually everyone believed in it and we made it our mission to pursue this continuously, with persistence for years until things change. We set up the first 24/7 hotline in Turkey so that Turkish speakers from 42 countries can receive psychological and legal help. If the media takes a social issue as their non-transitory mission, there is huge potential for lasting change. I’ve seen this with domestic violence, and I’ve seen this with girls’ education. My sister Hanzade started a campaign called ‘Dad, Send Me to School’ when the gap between girls in permanent education compared to boys was 10%. Now many more girls go to school. Our persistence and the great power of the media motivated civil society and the government to take action.

Is the Turkish press free to say whatever they want?

There have been pressures on the freedom of the press. It has become worse compared to how it was when I went into journalism in the 1990s.

Is it possible for the media in Turkey today to oppose the government?

There are some newspapers and internet channels that go against the government, but it’s not very easy.

Most people now use the internet. Are newspapers in decline?

The theme of my thesis at Columbia Media Studies was ‘The end of newspapers will come in 2003’. I came into the profession knowing that it will end, and from day one trying to change it.

Would you still recommend journalism as a profession to young people?

The border between fact and fiction, opinion and news, is becoming blurred and this is dangerous, but journalism is a very important profession if driven by good values like integrity, and I would suggest it to young people.

“Listening is a preventive medicine.”

Vuslat Doğan Sabancı, what does this one simple word listening that you are now promoting mean in practice? 

Listening is a preventive medicine. If we can create a climate of listening in education, civic society, business world and governments, then there is space for conflicts to play out before they turn into crises.

Hasn’t Covid made the opportunity for everyone to sit and reflect? 

This is a unique time to consider with courage and grace what we can do differently. Generous listening is making a commitment to really listen to the world without judgement. Listening is a muscle that everyone has and can improve by practicing. Children have the capacity to listen, but they are not being listened to. Because they are not being listened to, they do not grow into good listeners. The education system should teach our children to be good listeners.

In lockdown we listened to the wind in the trees and birds singing?

The Foundation was formed before Covid, but Covid times have made the need for listening so important. We all had an experience when it was so beautiful and quiet with no noise around. Now, when I’m in Venice or Istanbul, so much noise, in my mind I go back to those moments of silence, and hearing that experience is in our bodies. This is very powerful. We all went back to our busy lives, but now we can seek balance and that is going to make a big shift in our lives.

Where is the Vuslat Foundation located?

It’s a Swiss Foundation, and our offices are in Istanbul and London, but listening is a global issue and our Foundation is a global Foundation.

What is your plan?  

Continue to build awareness by podcast and conversation series starting in the fall. Then we will launch practices for listening, for youth, and for civil society. We’re creating knowledge hubs in academia. The first is a generous listening and dialogue centre at Tufts University. If we were a for profit company, our product would be tools of how we can better listen to each other – at the GLAD Center at Tufts University they will both create and try out tools with the students. They will also research what happens when you are a good listener. What are the barriers to listening? Why do we listen? Why do we not listen? Imagine if we could come up with metrics for listening, just like we have IQ, why not have LQ? If we can define a good listener, it would be embraced and rewarded within the corporate world.

Can the quality of listening be taught? 

Yes, it’s a muscle that can be developed, and if role models talk about how listening changed and improved their lives it will become a virtue that society looks up to.

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Vuslat Doğan Sabancı launching Vuslat Foundation in 2021 Venice Biennale Architettura

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Vuslat Doğan Sabancı as the publisher of leading newspaper group Hürriyet

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Vuslat Doğan Sabancı as an activist defending women’s rights in Sudan

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Vuslat Doğan Sabancı has her first solo show in London in April 2022

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Vuslat Doğan Sabancı is a self-taught artist

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Alain Elkann interviews Vuslat Doğan Sabancı in Venice

“My passion is to start a movement that creates a listening climate.”

Vuslat Doğan Sabancı, is listening active or passive?  

Listening is an active act.  You need to be actively present to listen, and listening needs courage. When you speak, you can control what you say, but when you listen, truly listen, you cannot control what you will hear.

Is it realistic that the world of tomorrow will listen?

We think listening takes too much time that we don’t have, but there’s so much inefficiency because we don’t listen to each other. In the end we’re losing even more time. I have experienced this in the business world, I know listening brings efficiency.

How will you teach people to listen?  

We are developing a toolbox that has practices for listening for different communities. Our first toolbox will be for youth. Civil society wants to solve immediate problems, environment and gender. They always think they know the answers, but they don’t always listen to co-create the answers that are good for that community. We will bring tools which will make their journey easier and more productive, to listen to the community and to themselves, to bring more interesting, less expensive and long lasting solutions. There’s so much money going into civil society to do good in the world, but is that money being spent well?

Should listening be a word of today like sustainability and storytelling? 

Yes, definitely! Storytelling is very fashionable and how to do better storytelling is already being taught. We should also remember the listening part. When there’s a storyteller, there always needs to be a listener. In MIT we are giving research fellowships into different ways of storytelling that facilitate listening.

Will listening be in the educational curriculum and perhaps a university level subject?

Our goal is that listening should be taught from K-12, not only in universities. If we work with the levels before graduation, wherever the youth choose to work they will be good listeners to themselves and each other, good listeners and caretakers to nature, whether in politics, business or civil society.

Is listening now your passion?

My passion is to start a movement that creates a listening climate in the next 10 years, and I want everyone to start thinking about it.

Is this your ultimate message?

My message is go listening. We need to take this initial step of remembering listening and reviving that culture, so follow us on the website and Instagram and join the dialogue. We will inform the spaces where we meet with podcasts and the material and the practices of listening.

The world of tomorrow will be able to combine technology and listening?

There will be more spaces created for listening than there are today. Look at Clubhouse. It’s only audio, one of the first social media spaces created for people listening. There will be a lot more, and a lot more innovative things that will happen.