When we’re in a disagreement, it’s sometimes hard simply to listen to the other person. The emotional temperature may be high and we can shut down in a defensive posture. But skillful listening is a core practice of conflict resolution and, potentially, a doorway to improved relations, greater self-understanding, and personal growth.
Here we explore some principles of deep listening. We hear the rich reflections of Betty Burkes, a peace educator and Buddhist practitioner, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She emphasizes the value of pausing long enough just to notice what you’re actually feeling in conflict. What are you reacting to? This shifts the spotlight from the words and actions of the other person to one’s own experience. It can promote self-reflection and healing. Burkes embraces a philosophy known as Nonviolent Communication, which was developed by the late Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, whom we profiled in Humankind program #100. She also probes ways out of the dilemma that results when pain triggers as anger.
Then, we examine a search for common ground between two friends in the Washington, DC area: Daniel Spiro, a Jewish attorney and novelist and Haytham Younis, a Muslim imam (prayer leader). Together they co-founded the Jewish Islamic Dialogue Society (JIDS), which convenes monthly discussions drawing on members of various synagogues and mosques.
When asked for commonalities among Jews and Muslims, members identified these “unifiers”: being a minority group in America; ultimate values they share: charity, justice, peace, truth, humility and gratitude; as well as similar language and customs. And although often depicted as being seriously at odds, there’s another bond between these two groups: their embrace of monotheism – the ancient belief in a single, universal higher power.
How exactly can we build a future based on understanding and connection among people of diverse backgrounds – rather than prejudice, misinformation and suspicion that are the fuel for violence? According to the late journalist John Wallach, the answer is to instill this awareness at a young age. He went on to found a truly daring experiment in breaking down barriers: the Seeds of Peace summer camp on a glistening lake is Otisfield, Maine. David paid a return visit for this episode.
Since the camp was launched in 1993, more than 6,000 teenagers from conflict regions around the globe have come for about a month of refuge. Their homes are places like the Middle East and South Asia. Usually it’s their first encounter with someone from “the other side” of bitter religious, ethnic or national discord. Here they meet, talk, eat, play sports, and sing together, living in integrated bunks. They discover that people who’ve been demonized are not monsters – just other kids trying to make their way in a confusing world.
We hear the diverse voices and accents of campers, who are known as the Seeds. They are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, agnostic, etc. and are invited into interfaith dialogue. They are disturbed by violence, especially when claimed to be perpetrated on “religious” grounds. They feel they are up against a wall of misinformation disseminated by media in one country against the people of another.
Camp co-founder Bobbie Gottschalk, who remains active in Seeds of Peace, recalls her own experience as a 20-year-old student at a Quaker college, which organized a trip to the Soviet Union to promote person-to-person dialogue at the height of the Cold War. That journey helped her understand the importance of forging personal connections in a polarized world.
As one counselor observed: “Understanding and being able to open your ears to the other side can make a world of change.”
Why do our hearts sometimes harden and impede the flow of compassion? Getting a handle on this question requires deep awareness of the underlying impulses that drive our shifting moods.
Compassion teacher Frank Rogers suggests that our fears, obsessions, angry attitudes and stress reactions are often an expression of “some deep need that is aching to be tended,” some old, open wound. If we can develop a conscious distance from these mental fluctuations, we may be better able to recognize our drives, rather than feel threatened by them. We therefore can soften our reactions to the world, and draw from a reservoir of inner compassion for others.
How different faiths interpret compassion
So how does this attitude affect the way we see and interact with others? Muslim imam Haytham Younis highlights the basic decorum of maintaining social civility “with everyone, even if someone is not polite to me. I try to remain polite and gentle.” And behaving this way with others, he notes, brings us natural blessings, like the health effects from peace of mind.
Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield tells of young nuns from Tibet who were cruelly persecuted and tortured, but whose greatest fear was that their own hearts would coarsen in response, thus yielding to the hatred they stood against. And we hear the story of an army colonel who, surrounded by a large, hostile crowd, ordered his men to kneel down in a gesture of respect and peace, thus soothing a tense situation that could easily have blown up.
UCC minister Rev. Betty Stookey emphasizes the importance of a calming discipline, like meditation. She also says we must act intentionally to break down social barriers, because “if you have somebody in your house for dinner, you’re not going to throw stones at them tomorrow.” And Rabbi Michael Lerner comments that—rather than rejecting people who show an anti-social side—we can view them as wounded, and set as our focus an attempt to.