Civility begins by recognizing that we're not the smartest folks in the room. We can learn remarkable things if we put our egos on hold and really listen to others.
We've tried sharp-tongued debate and righteous indignation in our city councils, school boards and county boards. We haven't changed many minds. It's time we tried a new approach called compassionate listening, which isn't really new at all. Vietnamese monks, Quakers and others have used it successfully for centuries. Anyone can use compassionate listening with friends or adversaries. It opens minds and restores trust, even when disagreement abounds.
Leah Green taught me about compassionate listening. As director of the MidEast Citizen Diplomacy project, she led compassionate-listening delegations to Israel and Palestine starting in 1989. In 1996, a group of Duluthians - Muslims, Christians and Jews - made the same trip followed in 2001 by students from the College of St. Scholastica. These groups, of which I was fortunate to be a part, helped antagonists find human beings in those they had been taught to hate.
Compassionate listening is not debate, mediation or even discussion. It is not an attempt to control the conversation or embarrass a speaker by asking pointed questions. With this technique, only one person speaks at a time. We listen to learn from the speaker and help him or her feel heard. We begin on a level playing field so that no side in a conflict has a home-field advantage. The speaker's task is to tell his or her story, complete with hopes, dreams, pain, fear and anger. The listeners' charge is to create a safe place for this to occur.
Compassionate listeners operate without agendas. They seek clarification when the meaning of the speaker's words is unclear.
To compare their understandings with the speaker's intent, the listeners paraphrase what they have heard.
In addition, compassionate listeners ask strategic questions designed to help the speaker tell a more complete story. Examples of these questions are: "What about this situation concerns you the most?" "How has this impacted your life?" and "Can you tell me more about it?"
The purpose of compassionate listening is to promote reconciliation, which makes peace possible. Sometimes the speaker even seeks forgiveness and offers an apology. Compassionate listening allows us to see the world through the speaker's eyes, experience his or her perceptions and put human faces on our "enemies."
Compassionate listening does not imply agreement. But it does awaken hope and create the opportunity to find common ground.
Listening without judgment makes it safe for the speaker to unwrap a more profound story. The listener must be emotionally and physically present and avoid pre-emptively framing his or her own response. This is difficult because the speaker sometimes uses emotionally charged, hot-button words such as "fascist" or "socialist." When this happens, the listener tunes in to the text and the speaker's emotions, setting aside bias and simply observing.
When compassionate listening is successful, both sides learn to pay less attention to the past and instead find ways to alter the present and create a better future.
We can use compassionate listening with spouses, children and people of different races or religions. It is equally effective with people in the same congregation who are at odds with one another as it is with a mixed group of liberals and conservatives.
As we enter an election season that promises discussion of controversial issues, compassionate listening is one tool we can use to help restore civility to our deliberation of public policies. We all need to "listen up" - but do so compassionately.
"Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project" is a resource for building civic engagement. It provides civil and respectful tools for people as they present their views and discuss issues. Based on nine tools taken from P.M. Forni's book, "Choosing Civility," the project has been adopted by nine bodies of government in the Twin Ports area, is part of the curriculum in the Duluth public schools and has been used around the world.
The Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation launched the program with a public education campaign in 2003.
Its nine tools are:
Gary Gordon of Duluth liked to say that to achieve peace we first needed to learn how to listen. A retired faculty member at the College of St. Scholastica and a former member of the Duluth Human Rights Commission, Gordon led two local delegations to the Middle East to learn about something called "compassionate listening." Before his sudden death May 30 from leukemia, Gordon wrote this column explaining compassionate listening as a tool of "Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project," an initiative of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation. Listening is one of the nine tenets of Speak Your Peace.
Duluth News Tribune.