Vuslat Doğan Sabancı in front of artist Giuseppe Penone’s sculpture “Idee di Pietra–Olmo,” commissioned by the Vuslat Foundation for the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. (Photo: Enrico Fiorese)
Vuslat Doğan Sabancı in front of artist Giuseppe Penone’s sculpture “Idee di Pietra–Olmo,” commissioned by the Vuslat Foundation for the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. (Photo: Enrico Fiorese)

Vuslat Doğan Sabancı Imagines a Better, Brighter World Full of “Generous Listening”

The founder of the Vuslat Foundation and its Generous Listening initiative explains what being a generous listener entails.
By Spencer Bailey
December 16, 2021
13 minute read

From 1996 to 2018, Vuslat Doğan Sabancı worked her way up the ranks of her family’s business, Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper publishing group, one of the largest media companies in the country. During that time, she helped lead the firm’s transition to digital, and pushed for greater coverage around gender equality and human rights—particularly women’s rights and domestic violence. In her last decade there, she served as the company’s board chair. For her, the experience was a heady whirlwind, an opportunity to bring a large, influential media operation into the click-click-click internet age, and to do so, in part, through social cause and action.

But by 2017, Sabancı says, “I felt that I had lost hope in what I was doing.” She was exhausted by the endless drive for quantity—to hold readers’ eyeballs and attention—often at the expense of quality content. “I began to wonder,” she says, “How could we go into another culture, where we listened more?” So Sabancı decided to take a sabbatical, and began “meeting [with] people who were out of my comfort zone, and just listening. Of course, it wasn’t easy.” The thought of a media executive becoming what she now refers to as a “generous listener” seemed to some, to put it mildly, contradictory. What she discovered, though, would alter the course of her life and career. (Sabancı sold Hürriyet in 2018.)

Here, we speak with Sabancı about what, exactly, entails being a generous listener, and what led her to start the Vuslat Foundation, launched last year, and its Generous Listening platform, which aims to create global change by showing people how to open their ears and hearts through projects including exhibitions, symposiums, and partnerships with universities.

Let’s begin with the sabbatical you took in 2017. Who were some of the people you were speaking with and listening to?

Because women’s issues have been my most important area of interest, I wanted to listen to women first. My first curiosity was conservative Muslim feminists. They call themselves feminists, but they’re religiously conservative. I’m a Muslim—I was born a Muslim—and it has always been difficult for me to understand them. I wanted to learn more about how some of the fundamentals of women’s rights and of Islam go together, and why you choose one over the other, and so forth. And I wanted to listen to women who have seen violence, who have been abused, who are in women’s shelters.

I also wanted to go to prisons, and listen to men who had [been] violent or who were murderers. Those were the most difficult listening experiences I’ve ever had. I wanted them to talk, but it was…. I also faced my own judgments.

Along the way, in 2009, you received an email from Lubna al-Hussein, a Sudanese journalist living in Khartoum, Sudan. Could you talk about that email? What did it say, and how does it fit into this conversation?

While tired and checking my emails at 11 p.m. one night, I found an email from this woman calling for help—a journalist. I’m part of the International Press Institute, a network of journalists, editors, and publishers who are trying to protect the freedom of speech around the globe. So she goes into that network and sends out a message, saying that, because she was wearing trousers in a coffee shop in Khartoum, with many other women—like, twenty, fifty more women—she got brought to the police station. She was told, “You can have a lash now”—like it’s the Middle Ages—“and then you can go home. But if you don’t accept that, you are guilty. Then you’ll go to court, and then maybe have more lashes.” All the other women got the lashes, then went home quietly. But this woman says, “I don’t accept. I’ve done nothing wrong. I want to use my right to go to court.” At that moment, I felt like covering her story was not going to be enough. I needed to be there physically.

The next morning, I was on the plane [to Khartoum]. By that time, there was a lot of fighting in South Sudan—there was a war going on. I went to the court. In front of the court building, there were two hundred and fifty or so women protesting. Across the street, there were twice as many policemen with guns. Out of the press, it was only me, from Hürriyet, and Reuters. That was it.

They told us the court was not going to be continued that day, that it was delayed. So I got in a car and said to the driver, “What is the opposition newspaper here in Khartoum?” He said, “It’s called Hürriyet” [no relation to Sabancı’s former company], which means “liberation” in Arabic. I said, “Take me there.” I went in and introduced myself. The editor and the publisher took me to a room, and said, “We have a surprise for you.” The door opened, and Lubna walked in. She was hiding there after the court hearing. I couldn’t believe it.

She gave me a hug and said, “We never had Atatürk.” [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk was the leader of the Turkish Republic [from 1923 to 1938]. We Muslim women owe a lot to Atatürk. He was very progressive in introducing women’s rights in the country. That was a very, very, very touching moment.

It strikes me that this was more than just an act of listening. You were responding to Lubna’s email by listening to what she had written, but also taking this very direct, incredibly generous approach of getting on a plane and going there.

It was also listening to my intuition. Something tells you, “This is what you’ve got to do.”

What was the impetus to begin the Vuslat Foundation and the Generous Listening project?

I realized during my sabbatical year how I started connecting to so many people through listening. As a media person, I’d been going after the quantity of connections: How many people do we reach? Who is our audience? But it was not sustainable, and it was not fulfilling. There was something lacking.

I wrote a short concept paper and sent it to thirty people. I wrote, “We’re lacking quality connections, which is making us super anxious, fearful, lonely, afraid of the unfamiliar, and also detached from nature. Without fixing this, it seems like we can’t fix any of the big problems.” My question was: Is this timely? Is this important? After two days of discussion, these people—who are all on my advisory board now—said, “Vuslat, this is timely. This is important. But we don’t know how you’ll do it, because it’s abstract.”

I came back home to Istanbul, and started deconstructing what authentic connectedness is. I [focused on] listening. In Turkish, the saying is “listening with your heart’s ear.” When Covid-19 started, we all reconnected on a Zoom call. I said, “The golden key is generous listening.” Everyone was enthusiastic. I got great encouragement and support. From there, I started building [the foundation].

So much of how we listen and receive information has to do with the media. Does the idea of a healthy media diet—or a slower, better media system—play into your Generous Listening effort somehow?

Unfortunately, the current economic business model of media dictates it not to be a good listener, but to be super-provocative and sensational—to have a loud voice. Media is generally either [instilling] fear in society, or scapegoating. Even if it’s not the tone, it’s the selection and creation of news, which is: How am I going to get attention? How do I get more reach? That doesn’t give much space [for slow, thoughtful content].

Not just broadcasting, but listening—I think now, media is going into a new phase, into an era…. I hope that current outlets will have to create spaces for listening. There are going to be different initiatives, like what you’re doing [with The Slowdown], or even Clubhouse. There will be other trials, too, which are going to bring more attention to listening.

Where does listening to nature, not just humans, come into this for you?

When I talk about generous listening, I talk about three components: Listening to oneself, to the other, and to nature. They’re supportive of each other, and they’re inseparable. Being a generous listener is a state of being, which includes being in nature. We learn to slow down, and to be open.

How do you define the practice of generous listening, and why don’t people do it more often?

For me, generous listening is the connection we crave. It’s engaging the heart, in the end, opening the heart to the unknown, being humble, knowing that you might not know everything. It’s being courageous, because listening is a courageous act. When we speak, we know we can control what we say. When we listen, we cannot control what we’ll hear.

One of the reasons why we don’t listen is that we get distracted all the time. Distraction has become second nature for us. It’s our fault. It’s the habit of going onto social media. Then there’s the global culture of showing yourself, of being out there, of that performance, especially for youth. Being aware of these things is the first step toward change. When we don’t listen, we miss incredible moments to connect with our children, our partners, our colleagues, even strangers. Listening reminds us of the humanity in each one of us.

From even before birth, we’re taught to listen to our mothers. How do you think about listening within this context?

The first sense organ that forms in a human is the ear. Through hearing, we connect, and first, to our mothers.

I don't know if you've heard about this initiative called Dialogue in the Dark. There is a trend to eat in the dark. The conversations you have in the dark are so different from what we have with our eyes open, because visuals shape so much. If it’s just audio, it’s boundless. I remember when my teenage son was going through a particularly hard time. We were arguing a lot. Then we went to this dinner where we ate in the dark with him. We couldn’t believe the things he was saying. He told us so many things. There’s no way we would have had that conversation anywhere else. We’ve got to remember that power of listening.

You recently presented a Generous Listening symposium at the Venice Architecture Biennial, and you just launched a Generous Listening and Dialogue Center at Tufts University. You’re also partnering with M.I.T. on research around listening. Tell me about these initiatives, and your hopes and ambitions for them.

We want to create a movement. I believe there are three important steps we have to take in order to have people, especially the youth, embrace generous listening as an essential part of their communication. One is creating awareness. That’s why we were at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, under the theme of “How will we live together?” Art has a very important power in inspiring people, and inviting them to think beyond words. We will continue to do these kinds of projects.

The second pillar is experience. That’s where we develop exercises, which take the form of challenges. We also create spaces for listening—which you’re doing right now, listening to me. Thank you.

The third one is creating knowledge and research: What is a good listener? What are the barriers to listening? What happens if we create better dialogues, and better conversations on an individual level, on a societal level, and with nature? With M.I.T., we’re giving [a Vuslat Foundation Fellowship for Generous Listening] to students who want to work on how we create spaces for listening. I’m very curious to see how digital spaces for listening could exist. That’s going to be our area in academia.

If everyone in the world started practicing generous listening—or if people just listened more and better—what do you think would be some of the greatest outcomes?

There will always be intertwined problems in the world, but we would be able to tackle them much more easily [if we listened to each other more]. That’s one thing. But something else is very important, too, which is people owning their potential, and playing it out. Without listening, we overshadow each other, and nobody can really be themselves. Highlighting one’s uniqueness, with everyone assessing that and showing that, is another important outcome I imagine.