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What is the right way of hearing hurt and of having hard conversations?

  • 29 May 2023
Dr Sonja Hood, the President of the North Melbourne Football Club, asked this question in an address at a function last weekend. It had been a tumultuous week for the club, with senior coach Alastair Clarkson stepping down amid an investigation that had taken a toll on his physical and mental health.

The investigation was launched eight months ago, after allegations emerged about the treatment of Indigenous players and their partners during Clarkson’s time as coach of the Hawthorn Football Club – allegations that were strongly denied by Clarkson and others named. A process was put in place to investigate the allegations, but as Dr Hood noted in her address, ‘there is clearly a huge amount of hurt – on both sides’.

That the issue emerged again during the AFL’s Doug Nicholls Round is perhaps not coincidental. The round is an opportunity for clubs to celebrate First Nations players and their contribution to the game, and also acknowledging and celebrate First Nations cultures in general. For those who feel hurt, of course, those celebrations can feel hollow – little more than a chance for the pain to be revisited.

Hood’s question – ‘what is the right way of hearing hurt and having hard conversations’ – is about the hard yards of reconciliation. It relates not just to situations involving First Nations people, but all situations where individuals have been hurt, but especially those who’ve been hurt in their dealings with institutionsHow can an organisation/institution create spaces where people can feel confident in sharing their pain, confident they will be listened to, and confident the organisation/institution will respond appropriately? How can those who are then alleged to have contributed to that hurt be invited into that space in a spirit of listening so that real conversation and change might take place?

Answering those questions, unfortunately, remains difficult. Like most of us, Hood doesn’t have the answers, other than to note the inadequacy of our current responses. The go-to response tends to be either to set up some form of inquiry or investigation to determine the truth of the allegations, or to take that process to the courts. While this might result in compensation and access to some form of counselling or healing, history shows it’s not always an easy process, particularly when you have two very conflicting perspectives at play.

‘An adversarial system and an adversarial process does not deal well with hurt’, Hood noted in