The Art of Compassionate Listening: Seeding Peace in Difficult Times

Compassionate Listening: Image of the American flag with a gulf of misunderstanding dividing it.

After the last election, I almost lost a good friend. I know I am not alone in this experience, as family connections and friendships across the country became frayed—sometimes beyond repair—by the political divide. The friendship was precious to us both, but how could we communicate across this gulf? After calming myself, I realized that I was being challenged to use the Compassionate Listening skills I had been teaching for years. The difference in how we voted reflected deeply held beliefs about the world. Reaching out to see what I might better understand about my friend’s beliefs was the lifeline for saving our relationship.

I was first introduced to Compassionate Listening when I was directing a film in the Middle East about a project that brought Jews and Palestinians together to listen to each other’s stories. We listened to Palestinian villagers who had suffered humiliation and loss of freedom due to Israeli occupation and to a Jewish West Bank settler whose mother had fled to Palestine during the Holocaust. There were many others we listened to as well, and all had shared the experience of human anguish.

Since that time, I have become a Compassionate Listening facilitator dedicated to helping people deepen their ability to connect in challenging situations. Whether Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, Russians and Ukrainians, or Chinese and Tibetans, hearing each other’s stories helps people understand and humanize the “other” in a way they never thought possible.

Hearing is something humans do naturally due to our biology, but compassionately listening to another requires an added measure of focus, skill, and intention. Most of us experience frustration when we’re not being fully listened to. Another’s interruption, judgment, analysis, interpretation, or attempt to “fix” our situation is often well meaning, but leaves us feeling that we aren’t being heard.

And we have all witnessed good intentions evaporate when people talk about hot topics—discussions that frequently result in hardened positions and deeper divides. But there is another way to be with others that can promote understanding and healing.

Listening and speaking from the heart requires a quality of presence that both speaker and listener can sense. Its essence is that of sacred witness.

There are things we can do to help translate the lofty ideals of heart-to-heart connection into concrete actions. And with continual practice, we can strengthen these skills so they’re available to us when we most need them. Here are some “how-to’s” that can help:

  • Have a positive intention. Try to anticipate situations like those in which you have reacted negatively in the past. Perhaps ones where you have a preconceived notion or judgment about a specific situation or person. Stepping into the situation with a clear intention to listen, understand, and connect this time around can make a huge difference in the outcome.

  • Practice a centering strategy. If you are going to be with a person you’ve been triggered by in the past, have in mind a strategy for calming down if that happens again. From a place of greater calm, you’ll be able to be more intentional in your response—and that, too, can make a huge difference in the outcome. Breathe…and practice a centering strategy of your choice every day. It might be a visualization, a mantra, a prayer, a song—anything that feeds your soul and makes you smile.

  • Be curious. If you’re listening to another person, do it with true curiosity about what may be at the heart of their concern, behavior, or belief—for them. For just a moment, try to stand in their shoes.

  • Listen for their values. Acknowledge another person’s feelings, and try to listen beneath their words for the positive values that might be alive for them. Simply reflecting back those values (by saying something like, “It seems you really care about family, honesty, fairness …”) can truly make someone feel heard and help them better understand why the story they’re telling is so important. But if you find yourself talking more than listening, it’s likely to be more about you than about them.

As I look at the deepening religious, ethnic, and political rifts threatening the fabric of our country today, I know that healing these divides will take time and patience, as well as a great deal of resolve, courage, and skill. Here are some additional tips that might be helpful if you’re talking to someone whose perspectives differ from yours:

  • Steer clear of debating about “facts.” You may never agree on them.

  • Avoid labels. Describing someone with a broad brushstroke can make us feel better about ourselves, but labels all too often reinforce a negative perception of the other person. For example, I might self-label as “liberal” and, by inference, label you as “conservative,” or I’m “progressive” and you’re “reactionary.” Yet labels over-simplify people and complex issues. They obstruct the journey to the heart of nuance, where the potential for glimmers of common understanding and creative collaboration exist.

  • Check your intentions and avoid questions that are thinly veiled attempts to convince the other person that we’re right and they’re wrong. Such questions can be a clear invitation for the other person to defend their position even more vigorously, which might lead you to do the same.

Compassionate Listening practice is based in openness of both heart and mind. So ask yourself honestly, “Am I willing to be impacted in some small way by what I hear?” If the answer is a big NO, wait until you’re able to soften your heart enough to truly consider another’s “truth.” Otherwise, you may find yourself engaging in a futile exercise that could do more harm than good.

When I think of autumn, I think of change. I think of it as a season for renewing friendships and for taking on new challenges. My wish for all of us is that we use this season to show up with compassion and connect with kindness…despite our differences.

I believe that the greatest gifts we can bring to others this season may well be the ones we don’t need to spend a dime on. The ones that might have a ripple effect of unknown positive impact somewhere down the line in a place we can’t yet imagine. Our own health—and that of our families, friends, country and, indeed, our planet depend on it!

Andrea Cohen is the author of Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening, a practical guidebook that helps people use listening skills in the heat of daily life challenges. She was co-director of a Jewish-German Reconciliation Project and director of the Compassionate Listening film Children of Abraham. Andrea facilitates Compassionate Listening workshops locally and internationally, and integrates its fundamentals into dialogue events, the workplace, and communities in conflict.

More on compassion by Andrea Cohen and others:

Hope for our Hurting World, Through the Eyes of My Grandson— Unable to  lay to rest her deep anguish about the conflict-ridden and vulnerable planet we are leaving to our younger generation, Cohen talks with some of my own grandchildren about their perspectives on the state of our world and their hopes for the future. Read about their perspective.

Cultivating Compassion by Ann Hedreen—Compassion asks much of us during a time like this. “The pandemic has shown us we are not in control,” said Doty. “It’s made us understand the importance of relationships. It’s also made a lot of people very unhappy and lonely (because) it has interfered with our ability to connect.” And yet, as Doty pointed out, not only are we seeing stories of “extraordinary acts done by average people,” we’re seeing a narrative thread of compassion that is influencing our culture, including what we choose to watch, such as the wildly popular Ted Lasso series, featuring a main character who wants to be kind and help people. Read more.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Andrea – This is Francie Wolff. I was on a life changing Compassionate Listening tour with Leah in 2003. I am a singer/songwriter, story teller, artist and here is the link to something I put together from that trip:
    I hope you can click on the above for access.
    My father was a holocaust survivor and spoke to nearly every church and school in our small town on what is means to be a Jew. Lately, with the policitical climate as it is, I have been foloowing in his footsteps and have been more than ever steeped in my personal history and the consequences of the holocaust as I speak to groups about this painful subject. I have never thought that I could confront my feelings face to face. All of this is leading up to the question: Will there be another Jewish-German Reconciliation Project or something similar to it? I have come to believe that such a workshop or project is more relevant than ever now and I want to be informed if/when Compassionate Listening sponsors such a program again. I am thinking of planning some kind of trip to Germany and the places where my Dad lived and so many of his family died. I will be needing my compassionate listening skills more than ever . . . . . . . .

  2. The difficulty lies within our basic “human condition.” Humankind is hard-wired to prevail (i.e.: to win) in encounters with whoever/whatever disagrees or opposes our own perceived best interests, regardless of in what form those encounters might present themselves – ideas – philosophies – battles – etc. Even when agreements to “compromise” are achieved, the element of the compromise either contains a “win” in the minds of both sides, or one of the parties clearly sees it is in its own best interest (or even its own self preservation) to accept the compromise – OR – one participant simply gets worn down and tired of the (to their mind) blind and unrelenting attacks of the opposing viewpoint, surrendering in exhaustion. As an observer I have attended several of these types of sessions/meetings/teachings and it is my observation that the purpose of them is mainly to reduce everyone and everything to a “groupthink” mentality without ever really resolving the matter at hand. My view is that the chosen (supposedly neutral) moderators/facilitators DO, in fact, usually always have an agenda concerning the matter at hand, and skillfully use psychological methods in an attempt to “guide” the group to the “right-thinking” outcome. Compromise is nice and it is attainable when one is deciding whether to serve a large group either apple pie or strawberry shortcake for dessert, but there are many-many more serious and deeply felt and weighty issues that simply cannot be addressed by such simplistic methods. I will close with this quote from Britain’s pre-WWII Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain; “… peace in our time…,” made just prior to the Nazi holocaust descending across Europe. He, too, thought that he had made a compromise!

    • Victoria Starr Marshall

      Thank you, Bob, for your perspective. We certainly live in interesting times and the challenges are complex.

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