By Rosemary Zibart, El Dorado Sun Magazine, New Mexico, November 2004
The technique Green has developed is “creating an environment conducive to peace-building through deep, empathic listening.” However, she admits, “It is no simple thing: At times we listeners must dig deep within ourselves to move beyond our own judgments and opinions.”
How many of us really know how to listen? Don’t most of us listen while impatiently waiting for the opportunity to present our side of the story? In particular, when discussing politics, we usually have little tolerance for the viewpoint of the other side — in fact we often only talk with people we agree with. That’s clearly not the way to foster communication, much less global peace. As long as people can’t hear one another, they’re going to continue fighting one another. Yet how do we learn to listen?
In December, Leah Green is bringing “Compassionate Listening” to Santa Fe. This seemingly simple concept is a difficult but rewarding skill for anyone genuinely interested in peacemaking.
The genesis of this novel technique began decades ago when Green became aware of her own prejudices. On a clear autumn evening, the young woman was admiring the sunset from a hill in Jerusalem when she saw a man walking nearby. “I fled in panic like he was a murderer,” says Green, “just because he came from the direction of a Palestinian village.”
Having always prided herself on being nonracist and open-minded, Green realized she needed to meet the people whom she feared in order to hear their stories. By 1990, she’d created Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy in order to bring delegations of Americans to Israel-Palestine to learn more about the conflict.
What she discovered, however, was that these visits were rarely peaceful. “There were a lot of disagreements, a lot of disrespect,” she explains. Many found it difficult to discuss any issue with an Israeli settler or ultra-orthodox Jew and couldn’t “open up to their personal stories and their pain.”
In the mid-’90s, however, Green discovered the work of Quaker pacifist Gene Knudson Hoffman, who writes that peace workers “should have no enemy and should care for the wounded on all sides of any battle.” She has also written, “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.”
For her inspiration, Hoffman cites the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who writes in his book Being Peace that “if we align ourselves with one side or the other, we will lose our chance to work for peace. Reconciliation is to understand both sides.”
As a result of her new vision, Green founded the nonprofit Compassionate Listening Project in 1996. As she explains, “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, sheikhs, mayors, rabbis, students, Bedouin, peace activists and terrorists. We’ve learned to stretch our capacity to be present to another’s pain.”
The technique Green has developed is “creating an environment conducive to peace-building through deep, empathic listening.” However, she admits, “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.”
So far, 17 delegations of Americans have visited Israel-Palestine under the auspices of The Compassionate Listening Project. Rabbi Phillip Bentley, who participated in 1998, wrote of his experience: “Those who have sympathy for only one side in a conflict become part of the conflict. … In order to be effective we had to listen to words that hurt. … We had to see the human being behind any and all categories.”
Despite Green’s growing sympathy with Israelis and Palestinians, she realized her personal growth needed a further nudge when she met a Holocaust survivor in Israel who spoke about making peace with Germany. “Looking at the beautiful photos of Ester’s parents murdered in Auschwitz, I simply could not imagine how she had come to find peace with Germany,” says Green, who realized that she lacked the courage to even visit Germany. “It was not hard to miss the irony of the situation,” she adds.
Green soon remedied the situation by flying to Hamburg for a conference. After making many German friends, Green became aware of the “depth of their unhealed pain” regarding the Holocaust. Consequently she founded a new project with her German colleague Beatte Ronnefeldt, Jewish-German Reconciliation, which has taken several delegations of American Jews to Germany with extraordinary results.
Green explains that the work she does is slow at times. Yet she’s convinced that true peace comes from openness and mutual vulnerability. And she claims, “Just as I had experienced with Jews and Palestinians, the very people we hold as our greatest enemies are the ones who can be, in equal measure, our greatest healers.”
Leah Green will make a presentation on December 2, 7–9 p.m., at Temple Beth Shalom, 205 E. Barcelona Road. The event is sponsored by the Santa Fe Tikkun Community; a $6 donation is requested. Green will also lead a Compassionate Listening Workshop, Dec. 3–5, at St. John’s United Methodist Church, 1200 Old Pecos Trail. To register and also to find information about annual delegations to Israel-Palestine or the German-Jewish Reconciliation, go to www.compassionatelistening.org.
This article first appeared in the November 2004 issue of El Dorado Sun magazine.