Thursday, June 18, 2020

practicing listening

I want to speak just briefly on the whole idea of universalism, since that’s what has brought us all together and I’d like to share a little bit about my own background. I was raised Catholic, and I’m now a Quaker – a member of the Celo Friends Meeting, which is part of Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting. I am also a practicing Buddhist, and I have had some experience in Native American religious tradition. This past summer, I had the pleasure of experiencing Hinduism in Indonesia. So when someone says, “What religion are you?” I give a different answer each time. The fact is, it really doesn’t matter what you call yourself. What I have found is that words are easy to come by, and I’ve heard many things said in the name of religion. What really matters is what people do with their lives. How they live out their faith and what they do with what they believe and what impact they have on the world and on their neighbors. That is the essence, I think, of religion. 
 Many times in social change movements, activists help polarize the situation. We create enemy images, just as anyone else does. They are the bad guys, we are the good guys. Or they are the people who don’t understand, and we are the people who do understand. So when we approach people in this way, they feel defensive and the potential for change actually decreases. We don’t really listen to people who disagree with us – listen to their fears and concerns – so they become even more polarized against us. Too many peace groups are largely isolated and seen as “outsiders” or fringe groups in their own communities. That was one of my primary reasons for starting the Listening Projects. I saw people in the peace movement going out to preach, to convert, to change people and tell them what was the right way, but very little true communication was happening. As you know, the minute you’re preached to, you become defensive, because the people preaching to you seem not to really care about who you are or what you believe. All they care about is changing you. 
 So the Listening Project was an attempt to break through the isolation and barriers that separate people into the good vs. the bad; liberal vs. conservative; hawks vs. doves. The Listening Project is an attempt, through deep listening and non-violence, to get down to the basic human values that really connect us all. These are the same values that connected my father and myself. Deep down in us all there is a desire for peace, for goodness and for justice. For each person those feelings come out in different ways and in some cases they get covered up, distorted or hidden by painful human experiences, by fear, insecurity or lack of knowledge. As children, we’ve all learned ideas from adults that we later found to be negative or problematic. My father grew up as a poor farm boy. He had no other opportunity to change his life than to join the military. The military became his way of understanding world issues. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with him that made him go into the military and want to use those kinds of solutions. It could have been me. Any of us could have ended up in the military instead of at a Quaker gathering about peace.
The Listening Project involves listening at a very deep level so that one builds a relationship of trust and respect between oneself and the person doing the speaking. We try to be non-judgmental and not react to things the other person may say. The other person must be allowed to start from where she or he needs to start. As this trust is built, people open up and begin to reconnect with their basic yearning for goodness and peace. What normally prevents that opening up from happening is a polarization process. People aren’t able to overcome their fears. When we tell them that what they think is all wrong, they feel that they have to defend themselves. So while we’re sitting there telling them what all the right answers are, they’re figuring out a way to say, “Yeah, but this is what I believe.” They defend their viewpoint. 
 Listening is a way of empowering people. It’s a way of saying to people, “What you think, what you feel and what you believe really counts and is important, and you can make a difference.” In Palau most of the people with whom we talked said they wanted more information and they wanted to get involved. In Southern communities and areas that are probably some of the most conservative areas in the country, we’ve gone in using a Listening Project and a large percentage of the people have said: “We do care. We want to get involved.” We’ve used projects to talk about social problems and military spending and we’ve found that people have never had the opportunity before to really explore their feelings and explore what they think and what might make a positive difference. One very important aspect of a Listening Project is that the group conducting the project is committed to following up with people who express an interest in getting involved. Listening Project participants are committed to acting on some of the input and ideas that come from people. So even after the active act of listening has concluded, a process of empowerment continues.

 ~ Herb Walters
excerpts from the article Adventures in Listening
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