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The Alchemy of Compassionate Listening

By Dr. Sharon Gubbay Helfer, Compassionate Listening Facilitator


This morning I have been reflecting with gratitude on how increasingly smooth and pleasant the important relationships in my life have become. The small things, the jealousies, little resentments and annoyances, have been dissolving, making for a beautiful quality of life.

This made me think of a colleague, who had been heading up an internationally networked nonprofit for a number of years, and who decided finally to leave. She spoke of her disappointment at encountering there, and at other nonprofits with beautiful visions and missions, something she called “The sand in the machine”. It’s people! People rubbing up against each other, interpersonal tensions or conflicts, even in organizations whose goals are so very worthwhile. As well, time and again in facilitating we find that it is the close relationships, the husbands, sisters, parents, children, in-laws, that people have trouble with.

And so it is with me. For example, recently I began writing poetry! Keen to share with my husband, heart in my hand, I read him a poem. His response "I don't like poetry, I don't understand poetry." Ouch! A couple of years ago I would have reacted immediately "That hurts! Can't you see that I am putting myself in a v

ulnerable position when I read you my poems! When you say you don't like poetry, I feel pain in my heart!" But not now. I have a special barome

ter in my solar plexus that tells me that the Drama Triangle is kicking in "Watch it Sharon, be careful, don't react right now, don't play the Victim ..." So I didn't, I breathed, I waited, I slept on it. I thought of Widening Circles: It's not all about me, my husband too has feelings here, what might they be ...?

The next day I spoke gently with my husband. And that evening, guess what I heard? "Okay, tell you what ... Can you print out that poem for me?" So we sat down in the living room, and we took plenty of time. Time to go through it slowly, giving me an opportunity to fill in some background. And at the end: "I like this." My husband is not one to sugar coat or say things he doesn't mean, so this was wonderful. He wouldn't have had to like it of course, the important thing was to be in conversation .... but I have to say this felt good!

This is but one example of how our Compassionate Listening practices can be an antidote to the “sand in the machine”. Becoming ever more self-aware, learning how to speak clearly and listen deeply, always with compassion, can turn that sand into a lubricant …


Dr. Sharon Gubbay Helfer is a professional oral historian specializing in life stories and a researcher/practitioner in the area of difficult dialogues and listening skills. Following a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies focusing on Montreal’s Reconstructionist Synagogue (Concordia U, Montreal), she carried out postdoctoral research in Jewish-Catholic dialogue at the Université de Montréal. This was followed by work on the major Oral History Centre project “Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by Wars, Genocides and Other Human Rights Violations” (Concordia), where her contributions included creating a Palestinian Canadian Life Stories pilot project. Dr. Gubbay Helfer is a certified facilitator with the Compassionate Listening Project and with the Compassionate Integrity Training curriculum. She has offered Compassionate Listening workshops and Circles to participants in the US, Canada, Europe, and Israel. Sharon is also a multimedia artist and dancer, exploring embodiment and dimensions of the unspoken. Visit her website here for more info.

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