Vol 3 November 2002       



with Gene Knudsen Hoffman

by Celeste Adams
Gene Knudsen Hoffman is a writer, therapist, and international peace worker who has developed a unique tool for reconciliation that she calls compassionate listening.

Hoffman's powerful approach comes partly out of her Quaker background, and is based on listening to all parties in a nonjudgmental manner. Listeners look for the sacredness in the individual and validate the right of each person to his or her own perception. This process helps people better understand their own thoughts and positions, and helps them shift their opinions so they can make wiser decisions.

Compassionate listening builds bridges between enemies and paves the road to reconciliation.

Adams: How did you first develop compassionate listening?

Hoffman: When I was going around the world, looking for peace initiatives to bring home to the United States, I attended a Quaker meeting. And outside the meeting room was a huge sign that said: "Meeting for worship, for the torturers and the tortured."

That sign captured my imagination. I began to realize we had to listen to both parties of any conflict. That's the first thing we have to do. And if we did that, maybe it would be the last thing that was needed.

I started listening to both sides as I traveled around the world, and the most amazing things happened out of this. I wrote many articles about it.

Adams: Why do people appreciate being listened to with compassion?

Hoffman: People are transformed when you really listen to them and seriously consider their grievances. It's such a welcoming thing, and it changes their thinking. Compassionate listening is about listening to both sides of all conflicts. You're not listening to get a political advantage over the person or anything like that. Instead, you listen with a spiritual ear to what they say.

Adams: Where is compassionate listening being practiced?

Hoffman: I've met with the military leader of Hammas and with many people in the Soviet Union — I worked in the Soviet Union for about six or seven years. I have been doing this all around the world. Now there are many people in the United States and in Canada who are doing it. That's because of the leadership of a woman named Leah Green.

Six or seven years ago, Leah Green called me up and said she had read everything I'd written on compassionate listening and she wanted to practice it in the Middle East. She's done incredible things with it. She also worked with a group of Jews and Germans who wanted her to teach them compassionate listening. She's bringing together these two groups so that they can be reconciled.

Compassionate listening is becoming so popular now, I can hardly believe it. But it really started only five years ago.

Adams: Can you explain the background that compassionate listening has among the Quaker faith and Buddhists?

Hoffman: I know as a Quaker that we always try to listen to both sides, although our practice isn't always as skilled as it could be.

And Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I know very well, is one of the great teachers of compassionate listening. When there is a danger of war, Nhat Hanh says, you have to go in and listen to both sides and understand both sides before you do anything. Of course, he's not in favor of any kind of violence or war. My book on compassionate listening is dedicated to him because he taught me more than anybody else about reconciliation.

Adams: Did you find that your work as a therapist was closely connected to the practice of compassionate listening?

Hoffman: I think that psychology needs to be a spiritual discipline. I studied to be a therapist in the sixties. I decided to get my degree in therapy because I'd had a lot of therapy myself from a very open-minded person. He was open to all of the religions and had a very liberal psychological education. I learned so much about therapy and the spiritual life, which go together. There's a very close connection between the listening project and therapy.

Adams: What are the most common mistakes that people make in their attempts to listen to others?

Hoffman: As far as I can see, people want to tell their sides and don't really give others the opportunity to express themselves fully. I think we interrupt each other too much. We really want people to hear us more than we want to hear them.

The Compassionate Listening Program is dedicated and committed to listening to both sides and not to intervene in any way. We may ask questions that will expand what a person is saying, but we can't criticize or judge. It's a listening project. Then we come home and sift through things.

So in answer to your question, I would say that interrupting each other and wanting to be heard more than we want to hear the other person are the most common mistakes.

Adams: How does listening help others to heal?

Hoffman: When people are hurt, it is important that they get the chance to speak their truth.

Adams: Can you give me an example of a situation where compassionate listening has been very successful?

Hoffman: There has been a fifteen-year problem in Alaska between hunters and fishers. The hunters are taking food away from the indigenous people. Cynthia Monroe got these two groups together over a year-and-a-half and there were many exciting concessions.

In a letter they write:

Like many, Alaskan Quakers have been sad to see bitterness and division as our state struggles over the current issues surrounding subsistence uses of fish and game. Together with the American Friends Service Committee, we formed a Compassionate Listening Project to gather small groups of Alaskans to learn about the experiences and values at the heart of the subsistence debate.

Founded by Gene Knudsen Hoffman and following her work, this expanding group, listeners and participants alike, has challenged itself to hear the human story of those with differing views. By listening fully to each other we hope to find values we all hold in common. We brought participants from different cultures together. The two dozen urban and rural hunters and fishers who participated from Anchorage and Fairbanks, found hope and common ground.

Two dozen Alaskans is a small number, and there are difficult questions which the project has not yet explored. Yet participants so far found out that they hadn't known they had so much in common. We hope that over time more and more Alaskans from different backgrounds can build understanding and trust by listening to what we each cares about the most.

At the end of the year and a half, they made seven concessions, and are still working on others. I think this is a tremendous success. I'd like to read the list of concessions that they made:

  1. As Alaskans we are stewards of remarkable natural bounty. We share a sense of wonder, respect, and responsibility for the future of Alaska's wild places and rich gifts of fish and wild life.

  2. Through our Alaskan heritage of hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering we are part of wild Alaska. We value respectful and sustainable use of wild life, fish, and other resources.

  3. Each of us has a personal responsibility to learn about and understand human involvement in Alaska's land and animals.

  4. What we learn from elders and written history, families, and communities, creates our personal values. We want to teach new generations to hunt and fish with humility, to use resources without waste, and to share foods generously.

  5. Many Americans lead lifestyles that distance them from the natural world. Direct experience of the land teaches us about our dependence on our environment and strengthens our commitment to protect our home for generations to come.

  6. Alaskans can work together for sound management of hunting and fishing. Local people have deep understanding of resources and harvest patterns in their areas. Those who travel to hunt and fish have a wide view of Alaskan resources. Biologists contribute scientific tools for studying wildlife and its changes. We support advisory bodies in which local people, other Alaskans, and resource managers use all these sources of knowledge to reach shared decisions.

  7. We are heartened by what we are learning from one another. Both our similarities and our differences can be opportunities for deeper understanding. We look forward to the questions we take with us from here.

Adams: In your book, you write, "We of the peace movement are obsessed with getting someone else to stop their war-making so we may have peace. I believe we must be the peace — we must create small corners of loving consideration and live peace." That's a powerful statement.

Can you tell me the practical steps people can take to create peace?

Hoffman: To do the work that is nearest their heart. To do what they can do. And it doesn't have to be complex. They just have to do it, whatever it is that comes to them.

We as peacemakers have to really re-educate ourselves and have some quality of compassion for the person we consider the enemy. We have to recognize that they have experienced some form of wounding.

I went back and forth to the Middle East for about nine years, and one of the things that I learned was that both parties are severely wounded. They've never healed their wounds. The Jewish people came from the Holocaust. They went to Israel and were told, "Now you're free, go and live your lives." But there was no healing for anybody, at that time. We didn't know what effect these terrible things had on people, the permanent effect. We didn't know what to do to heal them.

I'm looking at the Jewish and Palestinian conflict right now, and I've written an article about it. They are both traumatized people, and they're both suffering. They are acting out the suffering they experienced without having healed themselves, so they can't heal each other.

Bush is obviously a man who has had some terrible things happen in his life. This has made him violent and aggressive. He's going against the whole world in doing what he's doing. I want to look at him with compassion, but I find that very hard. Yesterday I heard on KPFK a letter a woman had written to Bush where she was totally opposing him, yet it was a very compassionate letter to him. I wish I could write like that, but I can't. Apparently she recognized that people who commit violence are wounded people, and compassion comes in that recognition.

Adams: How would you like the Compassionate Listening Project to grow in the future?

Hoffman: I'd like to have more people trained in compassionate listening. Leah Green is training a lot of leaders, and the people who are trained then train others. I think it can go in schools and homes. It belongs everywhere.

I have seven sons and daughters and I'm astonished that I didn't know how to listen to them. In my generation, people thought that you tell kids what they should do — you didn't have to listen to them. We didn't listen to what they wanted to do, and we didn't listen to their grievances. We mainly just wanted to tell them how they should live.

I want compassionate listening to be used in all situations. Very little listening goes toward other people, particularly if we don't like them.

This project is growing in Canada and the United States. There's going to be a big meeting in the State of Washington in November. This program is being picked up by word of mouth and by articles about it. People are more aware of listening now than I think they've ever been.

Adams: What is the problem with people's preference to giving advice instead of listening?

Hoffman: I think it is an old tradition that the elders know better than the kids. It's ridiculous. We want to tell people what we think because we don't get listened to enough. We always want to influence other people to come to our side. I don't think that's the way we can do it. But if we listen to them, they start shifting their perceptions themselves. It's a paradigm shift.

Adams: There's a quote in your book by Yhezkel Landau, Israeli peacemaker, that says: "The hardest and most essential sacrifice demanded for genuine peace is that of one's self-image as the innocent victim at the hands of a cruel enemy. If we can be led to see the contribution of our own people to the conflict, both can assume responsibility for the tragedy."

Can you tell me about the work being done in the Middle East?

Hoffman: Leah Green has organized a compassionate listening delegation in Israel and Palestine. They have brought children of Palestinians and Israelis together to get to know one another and they have also brought women together to listen to each other in Palestine.

I'd like to read what she said about this program.

In the last decade, hundreds of American participants have listened to thousands of Israelis and Palestinians with the intention of discovering the human being behind the stereotypes. No one has declined a listening session with us. We sat with people in homes, offices, streets, refugee camps, the Israeli Prime Minister's office, the Palestinian President's office, and on military bases. We've listened to settlers, mayors, rabbis, students, Bedouins, peace activists, and terrorists.

We've learned that it is easy to listen to people with whom we agree. It's when we listen to those with whom we disagree, those we hold as our "enemies," that listening becomes a challenge.

The fundamental premise of compassionate listening is that every party to a conflict is suffering. That every act of violence comes from an unhealed wound. Our job as peacemakers is to hear the grievances of all parties and find ways to tell each side about the other. People who want to take risks for peace will take risks.

We are over there now amidst the terrible things that are going on between the Israelis and Palestinians, and if given an opportunity we are really heard. Compassionate Listening with Israelis and Palestinians this past decade has been a gift for those involved. We witness the courage of the human spirit in times both hopeful and dark. We've been privileged to hear so many stories filled with beauty, wisdom and tears. And after years of listening it has become so clear to me all are suffering, all are wounded, all want to live with security, justice, and peace. All are worthy of our compassion.

Gene Knudsen Hoffman

You can read Gene Knudsen Hoffman's essays on Compassionate Listening on the web at CoopComm.org/listening.htm. You also can download her book, Compassionate Listening: An Exploratory Sourcebook About Conflict Transformation, at CoopComm.org.

Hoffman can be reached by writing to her c/o Journal of Cooperative Communication Skills, 133 E. De la Guerra St. #PMB420, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, or by fax at 805-966-4437.

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