Compassionate Listening: A Simply Radical Approach

By Erin Geesaman
The Catalyst, July 2002

Suicide bombers. Motherless children. Tanks rolling through neighborhoods, crumbling homes to rubble. In the Middle East today, these types of events are typically considered newsworthy. You won’t likely read about something so boring as listening. However, the Compassionate Listening Project and its delegations in the Middle East is far from boring. It’s simply radical. Imagine asking a terrorist to speak his views, his wounds, his dreams, and how he came to feel this way. Imagine listening.

“God gave us two ears and only one mouth, that we should listen twice as much as we speak.

“Some time ago I recognized that terrorists were people who had grievances, who thought their grievances would never be heard, and certainly never addressed. Later I saw that all parties to every conflict were wounded and at the heart of every act of violence is an unhealed wound.” The previous words were spoken by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, a Quaker peace activist who created ‘Compassionate Listening’ as a model for peacemaking.

Since 1996, 16 delegations of American citizens have traveled to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank to listen to both communities ‘on the ground,’ with intentions of creating new strategies for peace building. The practitioners of Compassionate Listening intend to address the roots of suffering – not necessarily its various manifestations.

“Those who have sympathy for only one side in a conflict become part of the conflict,” wrote Rabbi Phillip Bentley, who traveled to Israel and Palestinein 1998 with the project. “In order to be effective we had to listen to words that hurt. In order to do that we had to see beyond the categories we might want to place our speakers into [such as] Settler, Arab, terrorist, Israeli, government official, or victim. We had to see the human being behind any and all categories. Almost everyone saw his or her people as the victim in the conflict. Everyone wanted peace.”

He addresses us with regards to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. “The rest of us can support those [peace] efforts and the people engaged in them, but only if we avoid the temptation to take sides. The way [to peace] will not be one of accusation and the vilification of others, but from listening, compassion, cooperation and mutual respect.” As A.J. Muste put it, “There is no way. Peace is the way.”

The Compassionate Listening Project was founded in 1996 and evolved from early delegations to the Middle East organized by MidEast Citizen Diplomacy. In the last 10 years several hundred Americans have listened to several thousand Palestinians and Israelis.

Leah Green, project director, writes of her experiences, “No one has declined a listening session with us. We’ve sat in homes, offices, streets, refugee camps, the Israeli prime minister’s office, the Palestinian president’s office, and on military bases. We’ve listened to settlers, sheiks, mayors, rabbis, students, Bedouin, peace activists and terrorists. We learn to stretch our capacity to be present to another’s pain.”

Green elaborates about her group’s activity and intention. “What we’re doing is creating an environment conducive to peace-building through deep, empathic listening. It is no simple thing: At times we listeners must dig deep within ourselves to move beyond our own judgments and opinions. When we listen with the intention of building empathy and understanding, we also quickly build trust, and possibilities emerge. We have been able to bring opposing sides together in one room to listen to each other because our intentions are trusted.

She wrote of one ball that kept rolling: “If it starts with just one person and it grows; that is how peace begins.” One Israeli woman after being introduced to participants in the project and being introduced to Compassionate Listening initiated a dialogue between neighboring Israelis and Palestinians. “She kept inviting more people from her circle to come. She had already built a trust with the Palestinians, so from that point the circle widened.” Green continues, “Our experience has demonstrated that people want to take risks for peace, and will take risks, if given an opportunity to really be heard. After years of listening it has become so clear to me: all are suffering, all are wounded, all want to live with security, justice and peace. All are worthy of our compassion.”

The Compassionate Listening Citizen Delegations are open to interested volunteers. Two-week journeys begin with training in Compassionate Listening before venturing into the field. Delegations have primarily focused on Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. This year they will also include a trip to Germany to foster German-Jewish reconciliation. In spring they sent their first delegation to Syria and Lebanon For info see www.mideastdiplomacy.org. (If you go to their website, be sure to check out the online photo exhibit called “Opening of the Heart” a photographic exhibition on Compassionate listening that includes stories of those portrayed.)

Leah Green, project director, is also offering two-day workshops in California, Washington, and Holland for people interested in learning the skills of Compassionate Listening in their own lives. See the website for details.

Most of us would be well served by an education in compassionate listening skills. Our American culture mostly functions on a model of argument and debate. ‘Listening’ may mean simply biding your time until you can get your foot in the door and speak your view, with minimal attention focused on the speaker. Conversation, especially when engaging conflict, can tend to feel like an arm-wrestling match where the strongest arm eventually exhausts its opponent. The Compassionate Listening model is quite different.

In their way of seeking truth, the perspective is taken that all involved have something valuable to contribute, which can lead to a better understanding of the big picture. Any Compassionate Listening event is understood to be not an arena for discussion or debate, but simply an opportunity to listen and deepen understanding. A refreshing perspective to bring to any situation!

Green and other participants seem to do a skillful job of embodying Mahatma Gandhi’s sage advice: “The means we use must embody the end we seek.” A final thought to inspire compassionate listening in your life In the form of a poem by Sufi master Hafiz titled “How Do I Listen?”

How
Do I
Listen to others?
As if everyone were my master
Speaking to me
His
Cherished
Last
Words.
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