It’s a project

April 27, 2009

Do not be too quick to assume your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels that you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you are capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.   —  Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation

Foraging my memory for blog post ideas, I remembered the phrase, “The Listening Project.” With foggy details that included volunteers going to the Middle East to just listen to participants and the healing that emerged, it seemed like an important NGO to pass along.

Well, searching on “the listening project” yielded a new award-winning documentary The short trailer describes a movie that asks open-ended questions about America’s impact of people around the globe. I haven’t seen the movie, so cannot recommend it, but the experience of watching just the trailer reminded why I believe in listening and why it can be so darn hard to do.

Here’s an experiment, watch the trailer and notice where you cringe. Is it when the interviewer asks, as it was for me, “what you think that America is doing wrong?” Or perhaps, do you wish to zone out when another participant responds, “All Americans are liars.”

If we do not listen, we cannot learn. Yet, who likes to hear about their failures or the anger of another? I know when I am teaching it takes a deep breath and a dose of courage to ask, “What could I have done differently?” Listening is a discipline. It takes work and practice not to turn away when the rhetoric contains malice, prejudice or even misinformation. And, for me, it takes a few tricks.

 First, to stay present when listening to unwelcome information I repeat to myself, “that’s one window.” Listening to heated dialogue, I like to picture that everyone is looking through a unique window on the world. I am hearing the view from that person’s lookout. Holding that image, I am more able to stay in, remembering that I getting a picture that is informed by the speaker’s experience, the landscape upon which they were raised with the panes colored by their culture.

 Second, I repeat, “I’m going to learn something.” When I realize that I can gain something from the conversation, I find I am more engaged, and as I have mentioned in earlier posts, in a more rational mental state. My view gets bigger and better if I can come to understand yours.

 So, I hope to watch this film and want to let you know that organization for which I searched is called, “The Compassionate Listening Project.” This group can be found From that site, I drew the opening quote and renewed inspiration from their consistent willingness to keep listening. 

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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