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Compassionate Listening Behind Bars

By Andrea Cohen, Senior CL Facilitator

Rolling up to the barbed wire fence of the Washington Corrections Facility for Women, I prepare myself for teaching some of the institution’s residents the practices of Compassionate Listening. It’s part of a program designed to help them “turn around” conflict in their lives.

With all of my jewelry, money and identifying information left behind, other than the driver’s license which I’m required to give the guard for safe-keeping, I’m ready to meet the women who have voluntarily signed up for the workshop. After going through multiple levels of security and passing a number of residents clothed in loose gray sweats along the way, my colleagues and I finally arrive at the education building where approximately fifteen women are waiting for us. I know nothing about the people present – what they’re in for, how long they’ve been there, who is a wife or a mother, and whether there are some who might be there for the rest of their lives. What I see before me is a very diverse group of women curious about what we have to offer and perhaps wondering why we’ve traveled so far to offer it.

After introductions, we do a brief centering and exploration of what it means to be fully present with our hearts – from that special place of beauty that lives within each of us at the core of our being. And then we do listening exercises. The women experience what it’s like to be listened to without judgment, interruption or fixing. They practice reflecting back the facts, feelings and values contained in each other’s stories. They laugh, they cry and they’re grateful. They’d like us to return, and we do. A few sessions later, I gift them with a copy of Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening, which they excitedly read portions of to each other - clearly “getting” the power of our work and wanting more.

This is just the beginning of my story about teaching Compassionate Listening to women behind bars. A number of my fellow CL colleagues on both coasts have been doing similar work with incarcerated men and women in their communities. Why do we keep going back? Because we have something important to share – skills and practices that can make a difference in the residents’ relationships with themselves, their families and the people they interact with “on the inside.” By what stroke of fortune, circumstances of birth and personal choices made am I not the one living behind barbed wire? What are these women there to teach me – about courage, patience and commitment to growth?

Without regard to how we’ve each arrived at this moment, now is the time when, perhaps together, we can help heal our world...from the inside out. A lofty goal that truly begins one heart at a time.

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