Apple Award Winning Podcast
Sophie Weldon is a strategic storytelling and community engagement specialist. She is an experienced public speaker, filmmaker and recognised leader and innovator in her field. Sophie began her social action journey at 14 after she had a deep listening
experience with a former refugee named Adut. She believes stories have the power to connect, heal and transform us.
Stories also capture an organisation’s purpose, align employees to this purpose, increase productivity and act as a medium for communicating values & beliefs. In short, stories help us belong. Sophie has worked with key social and private sector organisations before starting her own business Humankind Enterprises.
Humankind Enterprises, established in 2015, is a social enterprise with a mission to connect people, one story at a time. They develop projects and platforms that harness the power of storytelling to create greater connection, acceptance and resilience in Australian communities. Today, we talk about how listening is a practice and a discipline. What can the next generation and the last generation teach you about listening?
Tune in to learn
- How Sophie is an amazing story collector, and how she has created a community of story collectors through social enterprise.
- Creating a listening culture across generations by having youth of this generation collect stories from an older generation.
- Sophie shares the role that her grandmother played in her development and journey.
- How a refugee from Sudan named Adut influenced the way Sophie shares stories and makes them heard.
- What compelled and motivated Sophie and listening with her heart.
- How just listening made a difference in Adut’s life. Through this listening, the deepest friendship of Sophie’s life was created.
- Enriching the society of the older population and creating connections.
- Powerful questions about past, present, and future that unlock the story.
- What have your strengths and successes in life been? This is a social starter question to celebrate the successes of life.
- Struggling with unreconciled stories and creating a meaningful experience.
- How do you want your family to remember you? What is your legacy?
- Sophie likes questions of the moment and stories of the present.
- Moments of freedom and beautiful reminders of hope.
- The role of silence in collecting stories.
- The story booths and pods are popup video booths that they bring into organizations, and people can use them to record stories on their own.
- Prompting with story starters based on the organisation’s values.
- Helping companies to better humanize what their values are through the use of stories.
- Helping people to feel connected and heard and using micro moments to record stories and beautiful moments.
- Start with your own story, your family’s story, and your community’s story.
- It starts with each of us and treating people as you want to be treated.
Links and Resources:
Episode 019: Deep Listening with Sophie Weldon
Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words.
So, if you wanna know about listening, then start listening all around you, don’t be specific about where you listen. There’s so much that we can’t see until we look for it and the same goes for listening.
In this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words, I have the privilege to listen to Sophie. Sophie’s an amazing storyteller but, more importantly, an amazing story collector. Through her social enterprise, she’s created a community of story collectors, the youth of this generation who spend their time interviewing the elders of this generation and in doing so, helping to create a listening culture across the generations.
Sophie takes us through a really interesting path and the role that her grandmother played in her development, and what an influence her grandmother has on her life, even though she’s passed away. Listen carefully of the story of Adute, a refugee from the Sudan and how that influences what Sophie does about making people’s stories heard.
Sophie, there’s a lot of influential people in our lives and some of them influence us for or professions, and I’m curious about who influenced you the most from a listening perspective?
I grew up in an interesting environment where my grandparents played a really, really pivotal role. Although my Mum’s just a single mum, she did an amazing job, my grandparents ended up taking a lot of responsibility of how my brother and I were shaped. And listening, for her… She had her religion, which was around a deep faith listening, which really formed her, which I think has formed me in a different… Not a religious way, but certainly in a spiritual, open way and listening to potentially what we can’t hear or see. And I think she told me to also listen to my heart. She used to say the heart is the heart of the matter, and what that meant at a young age was really, really feeling in to what compelled me and what motivated me as a young person.
I was very clear, actually, from a young age what my purpose was, and I think that’s because she taught me to listen to my heart, which I’ll never forget. She was my best friend throughout my life up until a few months ago when she passed away, and I think her role is the most sacred and important, and often a lot of grandparents do play that role because sometimes they can listen to things that parents maybe often can’t.
Can you place our audience where you were listening to your grandmother and she said that listening to the heart is the heart of the matter? Can you take us back to one of those places, Sophie?
Yeah, I’ve got so many memories of sitting around the dinner table. I actually lived with them when I was 18 and again when I was 23 for a year, which is quite rare for a young adult to live with their grandparents when they want to go out partying and that sort of thing. But I felt I was the luckiest person in the world. Sitting around the table, my grandpa used to say, “Why do you talk to your grandma about these things? Don’t you have friends to tell?”
But I feel like what she was able to do, even though again I said she came from a religious context, she could hear in a way that was open to just that. She would lean in with her physical presence, she would look at me in the eyes, and she would just listen to me and I would say what was on my heart. She would ask me questions about the types of things that I was working on and, yeah, it just came very naturally to her.
Even we’d go to the shops … There’s this one memory I have of listening to strangers, which she also taught me about, listening to their surprising stories. We were at the shops and we were at the checkout and she was talking to a migrant that had recently arrived and was working in the supermarket. She’d gotten to know their name, and their cultural background, and, of course, their recipes from their culture because food was a really big connector for her. And she was talking to them about what we were doing that day, “I’m baking a chocolate cake for Sophie,” cause it’s my favourite cake, and she was talking to them and she said at the end of the conversation, “I’m going to bring you back a slice of the chocolate cake and we can maybe swap recipes.” And true to her word, later that afternoon after we’d baked the cake she said, “Come on, get back in the car.” And we dropped a slice off for this lovely gentleman at the supermarket.
And I feel like that is so rare nowadays, both listening rather than just transactional relationships and also acts of kindness woven in to that. And that embodied her. That was her spirit.
You mentioned the migrants that your grandmother shared the cake with, but migrants have had a really big impact on your life as well. In your teenage years, they created quite a pivotal impact on you.
My grandma’s family friend, a woman called Marion Lay, she has one of the hardest jobs in the world, which is to process the forms and the lives of people who are seeking asylum in Australia, so she has to handle their cases and champion them. And one of the young women she championed to arrive in Australia, not by boat but on Australia’s offshore programme, was a Adute, she was from the Sudan, and a young refugee. So, when she arrived she was 18. And in Year 8, we had the challenge of having to work on a school project for the whole year that we believed in. We weren’t told what that was, we had to choose it for ourselves. I actually went to a Steiner school and they talked a lot around individuality and creativity, and that was part of the education was around helping students decide what they believed in.
And this opportunity came to choose what I wanted to believe in, and I knew that stories and writing, you know, I was really passionate about writing and reading, but I also wanted to do something that made a difference. Again, I’d lent in to my feeling of empathy since I was really young, supported by people like my grandma.
So, when this opportunity came, Marion, this migration agent, said, “You should talk to Adute who’s recently arrived in Australia and maybe you could write her story.” And I didn’t know who a refugee was, even though I’d seen a lot of news articles about it and it was the John Howard era with the Tampa Crisis and the children overboard. And I’d listened to stories about the label of a refugee, but never truly heard a story first-person.
And that moment when I knocked on Adute’s door and actually had the privilege to sit down with her, I was 14 at the time and she was 18, so I had no interviewing skills. I didn’t know much about listening apart from just curiosity and a feeling of interested in really understanding her. And that was how it started. We sat down for four hours, crying together and listening together, and that story really broke open a space in me that has been the most formative in driving my imperative for driving social change, because that story showed me that not only do we all have a story, but there are stories that are unheard in our communities. But also, those stories motivate us to wanna make the world a better place.
And it did.
Adute and I went on to become Australia’s first youth representatives for the UN refugee agency and did a lot around refugee activism together. And yeah, it was a really tipping point around how I saw myself as part of a bigger story as well as a young person.
What do you think you brought from your grandmother in to your first conversation with Adute?
I think some tenderness. Like, something that I definitely modelled off my grandma is sometimes just holding someone’s hand, even though nowadays it’s not really appropriate, physical touch. But often just the sense of hey, I see you, and I remember grabbing her hand and being in tears and saying, “I’m so sorry that you went through that. And I’m so sorry that at eight years old, you had to flee your village and leave your family and live in a refugee camp alone, and you had to lose people you loved.” I mean, her story, there’s so much pain in it, but there was also a lot of hope in it and I grabbed her hand, and I just said, “I’m sorry.” And she, I remember, to this day it’s like it was yesterday, she held my hand back and she said, “Just listening is making a difference in my life. Just listening.” And it was just a moment of real tenderness and of deep listening. And I couldn’t solve her problems, I couldn’t change anything, but I could sit there and listen with an open heart.
And I spent the whole year doing separate interviews with her until the book was written and through that listening came the deepest friendship of my life. My brother and I took her to the beach for the first time. We took her on the waved for the first time. We became very much part of her and she became part of us.
You touched on stories that are unheard in the community, how are you doing that now, Sophie?
I’m so passionate about unearthing the stories that are hidden in our communities and shining a light to better value people who have stories. We all have a story to tell, but often there are these dominant narratives that often take up a lot of space.
So, one key area in my work that we look at is the stories of elders, and again, this is very much formative from my grandparents and the elders that I’ve been surrounded by. And something that I’m really looking to address in our work is how do we enrich a society that is gonna be … One quarter of the population will be over 65, so we’ll have a huge population of older people living in our communities. But we don’t have the empathy discourse, we don’t have the celebration, the sense of agency around how we build this generation of older people more inclusively in to our society.
There’s a lot of ageism that I certainly believe can be addressed through more stories. So what we do is we train young story collectors and we help them record the stories of older generations, and in doing so create a social fabric, social connections, conversations which really do demystify what old means.
A lot of young people classify old as 50s or 60s, and then they meet a 90-year-old and they hear their story and they think, “Oh, you’re not actually that old. You’ve got all these really relevant stories.” And really sort of breaking down what oldness means. And we see young people come alive and we see them feel connected. And we actually measure emotional intelligence through our work and we see a huge increase in all those things when young people have the chance to listen to older generations. And it’s two-way. Older people are giving a lot back to the younger people, and younger people are giving older people a sense that they are still valuable and that we’re using them to help shape the conversation about what older generations have to offer.
And we’re not just doing this in age care settings, we’re doing this across regional communities. And we also work with organisations to better use storytelling to not just reach older generations, but also other people who are hidden in the community who a typical survey might not reach, for example. People think they’re doing community engagement when they send out a survey and it’s really not gonna get the type of story or engagement that they’re looking for.
Sophie, just take us through how you train a younger generation to listen to an older generation, because equally I think there’s ageism… I think there’s youngism as well, where people in communities over 60 are quite judgemental about younger people and their focus on mobile phones and building community engagement differently to what they would do.
We use technology, but we know that technology can be an enabler if it is imbued with that meaning, or as technology can disconnect us and as you said, there are a lot of stereotypes about young people being this narcissistic, obsessive, selfie generation. And ironically, we use the similar tools that people use to take selfies but we flip the other way. So, what we do is we train young people to use technology that they use every day; smartphones, with tiny desktop tripods and little lapel mics that just plug in to the audio jack, and they press record and the phone is there … Nowadays, phones can capture high definition recording, so you can’t actually tell the difference. We’ve filmed on iPhones and screened them on big screens and no one can even tell. So, you can actually create some really powerful content without needing the fancy technology.
So I guess we’re trying to disrupt the space but saying that the end goal is connection and the celebration of the story, and also an archive for the storyteller and their family as part of that legacy piece. But also, technology can’t get in the way of the connection. So, for us, the focus is the connection.
And we train young people … I’ll give you an example of our first age care programme that we did. This young girl, Riley, who is a job seeker and she was looking for something meaningful to do. She’d done photography studies, and she didn’t really know what she wanted to do in her career. She was connected to her grandparents. She was certainly interested in older people, but didn’t really know any older people outside of her family. So she applied to be one of our story collectors and we matched her with two older residents at the age care facility.
One woman we matched her with, this incredible woman called Ruby, she’s now her surrogate grandma, to me she’s absolutely incredible. She’s 96 years old. Her husband was in the facility with her until he died when he was 100, and they were in the next-door room to each other, so they were very close to each other. And now she’s the only one there, and she does suffer from a lot of isolation and loneliness, even though she does lead a very positive life. She’s looking for friendship.
So, we matched these two people together and their bond was just unbelievable. She sung … This describes Ruby, her personality. She has the lyrics for What A Wonderful World, that song by Louis Armstrong, in her walking stroller and she carries it with her wherever she goes. And she pulled it out and sung to Riley during one of their story recording sessions. And they’re very, very connected. There’s a lot of different tiers in their session.
So, what we’d do in the training, we’d help young people understand what connection means. How to create rapport. For a lot of young people, it’s uncomfortable to even contact a stranger, let alone sit down and actually ask them what their deepest regrets or hopes are. So, we sort of break that down and we give them the listening and connection and communication skills, and then there’s some basic technical skills around the smartphone digital storytelling, and combine those and really empower them to be really be able to sit down.
We give them these questions called story starters, and they’re the most powerful things in the whole training. They’re the questions which unlock the stories. And although we let the young people ask their own questions, we find that these stories give them the confidence to just start. So often the questions are around the past, present, and future. So, unlocking the childhood stories, the stories of their lives, their achievements, their hopes, their dreams, their loves, all the way in to their legacy stories of what they want to leave behind in the future.
Have you got a couple of examples of story starters that our audience could use?
Well, you know, one question that has been researched to reduce depression and hopelessness in older adults is what have your strengths and successes been in life? And it’s funny that we often don’t ask that question enough. And certainly, if you’re living a life in an isolated environment such as an age care facility or even still living in a community in your home but not having much social connection, you’re not often celebrating the things that you’ve done well in your life, you might be actually part of a negative bias of thinking about the things that haven’t gone well. We know that, as humans, we do have a flip side to the negative, it’s the way our brains are wired.
So what this question does is help people focus on what are my strengths, what are my successes? And they often approach that in many different ways. So they might start with family, or they might start with career, or some people actually start with the present moment and actually how they feel as a person now. So that’s one question that’s really beautiful and actually, in 20 minutes, some research has shown that that’s decreased depression and a sense of subjective hopelessness in people.
‘Cause at the end of the day, we’re not wanting to re-traumatize anyone. Certainly, there are a lot of stories which we struggle with and that are unreconciled, and we’re not gonna pretend like every story is a happily ever after. We all live with unreconciled stories, don’t we? So what we do is we create a space for that story-listening experience to be something really meaningful and they can walk away feeling like they’ve been heard and they’ve had a chance to reflect on what’s meaningful in their life.
So another question, future-focused, would be how do you want your family to remember you or what is your legacy in life. And that’s really nice. Often, they celebrate their values and what they feel a very true testament to how they’ve lived.
What’s your favourite story starter?
I often like questions in the moment because often people … Even when you think about storytelling, there’s this assumption that it’s about the past, I often really like the stories of the present. Getting them to think about how their current experience is like, and where do they feel love and where do they feel hope. And sometimes it’s in the hidden corners.
We had one woman tell this amazing story at the age care facility, and she is a Holocaust survivor and survived two concentration camps. And every day she walks in to her own private room in this facility, and on the door, there is a painting of a girl in some grass and she’s looking really free and happy, and when she left the concentration camp, she walked through the grass. And it was as if that painting was made for her, even though is wasn’t, when she arrived it was already on the door. But that takes her back to that moment of freedom. So every day she has a sense of hope when she walks in and out of her door, which is such a beautiful reminder.
Yeah, where do you find hope in life now every day? Where do you find love? Not just the love stories, but where do you find it when sometimes it’s harder to see?
I’m curious, when you listen to all of the story collectors that you’ve trained, what role does silence play in collecting stories?
I feel so passionately about that. It’s often a hard thing to train. One of the difficulties that young people have is this, that I see reoccurring and we try to reassure that it is okay to sit in silence, but until you’ve been there… It’s easier to teach than do, right?
So, I think the silence… We’ve had moments where we look through the recordings, ’cause we’re not always in the room when the recording is going on so we look through them, and the facial expressions and feeling of immediacy that you can feel even through those silences is so poignant.
We also have another tool, these video booths that we use in community to capture all sorts of stories, and when we press record in that video booth and we close the door and people are left inside to share their story, it actually starts recording before they begin. And those silent moments where you can see their expressions and see them preparing to say something, that’s some of my favourite because you see the most human side of them. You see their fragility and their vulnerability and their nervousness. That humanity just shines through. So silences, I feel, speak so much deeper sometimes to the heart of who we are without the mask.
Spend a little bit more time talking about these story booths and how you use them, both in community and corporate context.
Humankind Enterprises is the name of our organisation and story pod is really our legacy enterprise, it’s what we spend most of our time doing and it consists of programmes, both inter-generational programmes as well as other story collecting programmes in community or organisation.
But one of the tools that we use that we’re most known for at the moment in organisations are these story pod video booths. They’re pop-up spaces, they’re actually inflatable, so they’re about three metres by three metres. Some people call them an igloo ’cause they’ve sort of a bit of a dome. And what we do is we bring these listening spaces in to organisations and regional communities and non-profits, and inside is a chair and a touchscreen recording unit so people can actually record the story on their own.
We have two story curators that stand with the pod and their role is really to listen and connect with people, and to encourage them to record a story. So without that human element, we would just be a piece of technology, but that’s a really big focus for us, to have that sense of community right from when they come up to the pod till when they leave and finish recording a story.
So they sit down in a chair inside the video booth and they’re prompted with usually one or two story starters, so we customise the question depending on what the organization’s values and engagement purpose is. So recently we worked with A&Z around their values and really humanising those five values, so, capturing stories of where staff have actually come alive. So we heard stories of the pride network in A&Z and how LGBTI community are feeling embraced. All the challenges that they have in that workplace. One of the staff said to us, “We’re so used to telling, this is the first time that we’ve done listening.” And I thought that was pretty powerful. Even a demonstration that this is a listening space, this is not a telling space. And we had the CEO in but then the next minute we had the mailman in, so there’s no hierarchy in stories either.
What we do then is we edit those videos together, we give them to the organisation to further their listening and engagement and dialogue work within the organisation. We also provide a copy to the storyteller. And we’re also working on some synthesis work where we can actually provide a bit more of an exploration about what that data is telling us so that it can feed in to research, it can improve dialogue to say, you know, of the 150 people that recorded their stories this week, these are the key themes that are coming out, these are the insights that are coming out.
If you step back in to listening, and you’re the CEO of this very large financial services organisation A&Z, what decisions do you think they might make differently because they listened?
I hope that the decisions they make are less inferred by a predetermined outcome and are really determined by embracing the diversity and the voices of the people. ‘Cause, you know, people talk about corporation and the economic system and the breakdown of capitalism and all this sort of stuff, and then they talk about corporations like they’re not made out of individuals. So, I think people like A&Z are understanding the uniqueness of their staff and even of their customers. They can actually better humanise what their actual purpose and values are as a company.
One example is there was a branch manager, A&Z, who is a refugee from Iran and he did a day swap with one of the executives in the head office, and the executive was so moved by his story. This guy from Iran was the CEO of a financial services company, came over to Australia, had to become a forklift driver because none of his skills were transferable, slowly rose up until he was able to become part of a branch, is now a really celebrated part of the company. And that one story showed that executive the value of what their company can do in the community for people who come from all different walks of life. So that exchange was then able to enrich his understanding of what values in a company mean, rather than just the bottom line … About really, how do we respect the people that work for us? We respect their story, and we give them a chance.
So, I think it’s about building purpose and values in to the forefront of how we listen as humans and how we support each individual person to feel a sense of purpose rather than just be stereotyped as part of the whole. Another staff member talked about how listening to customers tells us things that we potentially didn’t know before. So, if someone’s stressed and they tell us their story, maybe it’s best if we don’t give them another credit card, you know? And without really listening to that, they might not know what’s truly best for that person. It might be back to the bottom line but is that actually the best interest for that person? And I really do think that companies are waking up to those values and trying to become a better service rather than just potentially to their shareholders pockets, and that’s something that is being driven from the inside out as well as the outside in.
What’s your favourite story from one of the igloos?
A really emotional one we did was with the National Breast Cancer Foundation. We went to one of their pink triathlon events and you imagine that in this public forum you have thousands of people dressed in pink, running around left, right, and centre around you, you would think how could you create a safe, private, listening space. But it is incredible how a plastic igloo demonstrates an invitation that people respond to.
We recorded stories of survivors, of sufferers, of family members and what cancer research means to them. And the stories were so powerful. And again, they’re trying to find more research in to breast cancer and certainly there are many ways that they can do that, but they focused this engagement on just helping the people that were there to fundraise to actually feel connected to the cause and to feel heard, and really celebrating those micro moments of where their family came together to support them. And not just the sad stories, but also the recovery stories. We had kids record it with their mums, such beautiful moments that were captured where kids talked about the pride they had and the resilience that their mum demonstrated.
I think we’re at an interesting point in our world, listening to the news puts us in a really volatile internal position and creates more conflict with people that we meet, and I think right now, we need to create a movement of listening and I would love to pass on the invitation to people, each individual … Potentially it starts with listening to your own story first and understanding your own story, and then starting with your family stories. Get your phone out, start recording stories of your family members, and then stories within your community and organisation. I think that’ll start to break down the silos that exist and the fear that exists around the other, which is something I feel like we really need right now.
If your grandmother was listening to this interview right now, what would be the one thing she would have expected you to say that you haven’t so far?
Only you can just see that I closed my eyes then. But sometimes, when I think about listening, I can only just close my eyes because I feel like that’s the thing that sometimes brings us back to listening to ourselves.
I think my grandma would definitely say that it starts with each of us, each of our conversations and interactions, whether it be at the till at the supermarket buying groceries or talking to a CEO, it’s treating people as you want them to be treated. And she used to say that but not in a cliché biblical way, but in a really embodied way. So, if you wanna know about listening, then start listening all around you, don’t be specific about where you listen. There’s so much that we can’t see until we look for it and the same goes for listening. So, I guess she would say, you know, as soon as someone listens to this podcast, as soon as they put their headphones down, find the closest story they can listen to, or ask a great question and it might not be the one you expect, but just to start with an open heart.
And while I’ve had the privilege of spending time with you, Sophie, it was very easy to see your heart in your eyes and in your smile and in your face, and your grandmother is extraordinarily proud of you and so grateful for the work you’re doing with Ruby, Riley, and all the communities you curate. Thank you so much for your time, and thanks for listening.
Thank you for listening, Oscar. Yeah, been a really enjoyable conversation.
It’s people like Sophie who create optimism for me and for what’s possible in the future. Her capability to listen, to create communities of people who listen, and to bridge together communities across the generations is so powerful. It was amazing to see how she bridged and spanned not just community efforts with breast cancer, but also in to corporations and the work she does with big banks. I love the way that Sophie took the time to understand the influence that her grandmother and Ruby had on her life as a listener, and made a point to say that there are many people in all of our lives that are role modelling listening to us, we just need to take the time to listen to them.
The gift that Sophie left for me is that listening is everywhere. Listening is a state of mind, it’s a discipline, it’s a practise. It’s how you show up in every conversation, whether with someone you know or, in her case, people you don’t. She’s highlighted to me that even listening to the stories of strangers can have a powerful and transformational impact, not just for them to have their story heard, but also for you to create a new perspective in your life.
Thanks for listening.