When I leave to go on a trip somewhere without my partner, one of the things he always says to me is, "Don't talk to crazy people." He has to say this because he knows I’m prone to trying to resolve conflict, even when it may not be a good idea. The following story is one of the incidents that led to him feeling the need to warn me in this way. . .
It’s a dark night in San Francisco in 2012. My husband and I are riding our bikes home from work and it’s windier than the Hundred Acre Wood on a blustery day.
As we approach Crissy Field, I’m pedaling hard in my neon yellow jacket, with a spot light on my head, and suddenly I hear my husband scream “Oh s**t!” I glance over as he swerves out of the way just in time to miss a jogger, dressed in all black.
As my husband and I slow down to catch our breath and our wits, I hear the “pat pat pat” of feet running on pavement. I look behind me and the jogger is sprinting towards my husband.
“Honey go!!!” I yell as I push him towards pedaling. My husband quickly takes off pedaling, and I start to follow, but I’m soon overwhelmed by the burning in my thighs and the wind, so I stop to chat to the angry jogger who is currently screaming after my husband every expletive in the English language.
I dismount from my bike. “Sir!” I say with as much authority as I can muster, “It’s okay. Everyone’s fine. We obviously didn’t see you.” The yelling continues so I say louder and with more emphasis, “SIR, please calm down, we weren’t trying to hurt you. We just didn’t see you...” After a few minutes he gives up screaming at my husband, and runs off in the other direction.
My husband rolls his eyes at me and sighs as I catch up. “Honey, next time some stranger wants to punch me, do me a favor and run away with me?”
“What!?!” I say, still annoyed about the wind and further commute. “I called him SIR twice and he calmed down.”
My husband and I still debate if that occurrence was due to my deep need to mediate conflict, or because I was simply too lazy to get on my bike and out-pedal the screaming runner. There are many stories that involve me throwing my body between two people who are about to come to blows. It's happened in sports games, post road-rage, and once when I was picking up new glasses at an Optometrist's office where a yelling match between two customers was escalating while everyone stood staring. I’ve always been the peacemaker in my circles; through my parent’s divorce, with my friends, with my family who range from staunch pro-military republicans, to young libertarians, to socialist hippie vegans.
It is through these experiences that I first learned to develop one of our core practices of compassionate listening, what we call Developing the Fair Witness. This practice allows us to explore and hold tension, complexity, and ambiguity with a curious lens that helps us step “up to the balcony” and see things from a bigger picture view.
I enjoy the practice of standing in other people’s shoes, even when it's hard. I think it’s the most underutilized tool in a human beings’ toolbox. We are capable of a lot as humans - great technological advances, putting people in space, exploring lost civilizations, etc. But one of the important capacities we humans have, compassion and empathy, is sometimes the most difficult to actually practice. Compassion is a simple but not always easy practice.
Marcel Proust said “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes, in seeing the universe with the eyes of another, of hundreds of others, in seeing the hundreds of universes that each of them sees.”
For me, that is what Compassionate Listening is all about. It's about being willing to pause and consider another perspective. We all possess this ability to hit pause on our own views, and try to understand and appreciate where another human being is coming from, to see things from another perspective, even if we don’t agree with that perspective. We can still hear that person. We can still appreciate differences. We can still stand in their shoes and get curious about what's going on for them. And we can become bigger people with a greater capacity for making a difference by doing so.