An Interview with Gene Knudsen Hoffman by Barbara Casey
Gene, how did you first become familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh?
Gene: I have been a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation since 1950 and we sponsored Thich Nhat Hanh’s speaking tours for peace in the United States and abroad in 1966. I was interested in this young Buddhist who had so much to contribute to peace. In 1985 I went for a month to Plum Village, his center in France. While there, he asked me to organize his first retreat with Vietnam Veterans. It was a wonderful retreat here in Santa Barbara and there are several veterans from that retreat that l still see.
Thay, as we learned to call him, is particularly strong and powerful in h is teachings on reconciliation. Since that is my field, l learned much from him. The international program I founded, Compassionate Listening, is based on h is teachings that we must listen to both sides of any conflict before we take action and we must acknowledge the suffering and grievances of both sides without judgement. Ultimately through this process, we bring the two sides together for reconciliation.
When Glasnost came, everyone just stopped, thinking that no more work of reconciliation was needed, but I knew that wasn’t true. So l began working in the Middle East and since then I have been going back and forth, working there. On one trip to Israel, I stopped in London and attended a Quaker meeting. I saw a huge sign outside the hall saying, “Meeting for worship for the tortured and the torturers,” so l went to that meeting. I had long listened to the tortured, but listening to the torturers I’d never thought of that. So I developed a Compassionate Listening program and wrote many articles about it. Then in 1996 I received a call from Leah Green in Seattle, saying she wanted to use my Compassionate Listening process in her peace delegations to the Middle East. No one else had wanted to work with me because they said I didn’t advocate for anything. When you advocate, you pick a side and you have enemies. I didn’t take a side. When people asked me who I was advocating for, I told them, “I’m advocating for reconciliation.”
Tell us about Compassionate Listening:
Gene: Compassionate Listening is a process for making peace because you listen to the grievances of both sides, you hear the suffering of both sides, and you hear the life stories of the people who represent each side. It is a listening program that does not criticize or advise. The Middle East project has been bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. Now there are more people who are beginning to understand the situation. When l went to Israel the first few times, the Israelis I met said the Palestinians didn’t exist and no one would go into the Palestinian Territory except the peacemakers.
Compassionate Listening is people listening to both sides without judging or condemning and being there as nourishing, nurturing people caring for people on both sides. It’s amazing.
One of my last visits to Israel included a meeting with the military head of Hamas at that time. He was a very appealing young man. I listened to his life story. He had been arrested and exiled by the Israelis, and made to sit on the border of Lebanon where they were fighting. His story was horrific but he was a loving man. I went up to him afterwards and said, “l might have some ideas on nonviolence for you and I wonder if you would like to hear them?” And he said, “You sound just like my mother.” I told him, “I’d like to be your mother!” We hugged and I left. A week after I came home, the newspaper reported that he had participated in nonviolent demonstrations twice. I don’t know where he is now but the transforming experience of having a group of people listen to your life story was reflected in the change in this young man.
I was requested by the American Friends Service Committee in Alaska to offer two trainings. They were having problems with indigenous people in Alaska having their food supply threatened. Their program went for a year and a half and then they came together and made seven concessions.
In the listening process, there is a group leader and the same listeners stay with the project. They start out listening to one group and then the other. They don’t bring the groups together until they feel they are ready; by that time they have often worked through many of their differences. This is the process that I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh because in his community each person tells their side.
How does a person use compassionate listening skills in their daily life?
Gene: You listen to people; you don’t criticize or condemn them and you don’t argue with them. You are grateful they told their story. I have one grandson who is a little terror and is defiant of everything he’s told to do. One day he came over and he didn’t talk to me, but he was being very troublesome. So l said, “Tell me what’s going on, are you upset with me. Have I done something?” He said, “I’m mad at my dad!” I said, “Thank you for telling me; tell me about it.” He said, “I didn’t want to come here, I wanted to stay and play with my friends, but my dad made me come!” That explained everything. Before I understood, his behavior was so awful l was ready to send him home. After I knew the problem, he softened up and his dad was here and we all began talking, and then everything was fine.
I think that you have to ask, is there anything wrong? Is there anything I’ve done? Can you tell me how you’re feeling? I don’t know if it will work, but it works in the home if we can stop our own feelings of aggravation and listen. Just stop and say, “I’m going to listen to you now; tell me whatever it is that’s bothering you because it will help me.”
At home it’s so easy to just start arguing, I think it really helps to set an environment by stating what you’re going to do; “I’m going to stop and listen to you now.” Stopping and verbalizing your intention helps to create safety.
Gene: If an argument starts, one of the things that I usually do is to say, “I can’t talk about this anymore, I have to think about it.” Because at the moment the argument is going on I would just fall into it and defend myself. I do what I need to get out of the angry mode because that’s the hardest place to listen from.
In the Compassionate Listening project, you have to be able to listen to people you hate, but sometimes a person just cannot listen and they have to stop. I would have a hard time listening to [President] Bush, and I think it would be the best thing for me to go and listen to him. I think I would learn more about whatever it is that arouses me and makes me fear for my nation and for our lives.
How can Compassionate Listening help us in these times?
Gene: I think we should listen to the people who differ from us, either in small groups or one on one. We should listen to what we find is the truth they speak and affirm them in it. That is one of the processes of Compassionate Listening. For example, in the U.S. we can go in pairs, from door to door; and ask three questions: What do you think of the war against evil? Do you see a way other than war for resolving these differences? Would victory resolve our differences? Why or why not? Each person will have an opportunity to look at their own truth and to consider the beliefs behind their words.
We went to Libya and stayed a week doing Compassionate Listening. We met with people in government, politics, law, and academia. We also met with the religious leaders of Islam. I told them that I, as a Quaker, believed the spiritual teachings were evolutionary and asked them if the teachings in the Koran were too. They went into another room to consider my question and when they returned they said, “We interpret Mohammed’s teaching in different ways as time goes by.” When we asked them about their treatment of gay people, we were relieved when they answered that they don’t kill them anymore.
Gene, if you had an opportunity to meet with President Bush, how would you go about listening to him?
Gene: I would go with a small group who had been trained in this process. We would say something like: “We want to know about you as a person and as a President. Tell me the best time you ever had in your childhood.” We would not ask adversarial questions. We would say we want to know about your life, we want to know what you believe and what your faith tells you to do. What I would like to find is the good spirit in Bush that can be built upon, where we can build on what he believes, because there is no point in attacking him. I would listen with compassion to him.
How do you think we can bring peace?
Gene: There is no future without forgiveness. We must start going in delegations around the world, acknowledging the harm our country has done, acknowledging our grief over it and asking for forgiveness. I think every country has to do it, but I think that it needs to start here. The goal of compassionate listening is that we will acknowledge the harm that we’ve done and ask for forgiveness and listen to the other people. All of this bombing and destroying people has never brought peace. So we have to do something much bigger. That will come in steps and just doing this compassionate listening is an important beginning. There is a coming together of the two sides.
One of the many things I love about compassionate listening is that it’s not at all abstract. It’s something I can do even when I feel completely overwhelmed by the state of things in the world.
Gene: Yes, and I still go back to the one on one. Since 9/11 I’ve had at least twelve people call me up and just want to come and talk to me, so I’ve listened.
Compassionate listening seems easy to do but is so difficult. If one aspires to be a compassionate listener, what are the qualities one needs to develop in oneself! Especially to be able to listen to people who have different views?
Gene: In the course I teach, you examine yourself for hatred. All the classes are on the Web, and it’s free. Whatever you can’t listen to, you don’t do. You have to discipline yourself and not react. With my grandson I react all the time, so I am working on that. You have to discern the truth and it’s not listening with your human ear, it’s listening with your spiritual ear. It’s much better to work in a group with a leader, but you can do it by yourself with my booklet.
What is your vision? How do you see Compassionate Listening being used in society?
Gene: I think it is a process that can be used in every experience and l think it’s a process that we Americans have to learn. This process is a step in our evolution, a direction that is different from the way we’ve gone before. I’ve never seen so many articles published on listening before; I believe its time has come. We just have to transform ourselves and it’s a wonderful thing to do! We have been doing things that are very destructive to human beings for a long time. We don’t know how rich and important it is to go out and do something!
It seems that separation breeds more separation, and compassionate listening breaks down the illusion that we are different, that we are “other.” We need to do that on a personal, one on one way, for the seeds of that belief to dissolve.
Gene: That’s a great statement. I’ m going to use that in my teaching. We can only aspire to the impartiality and balance that’s needed to do compassionate listening. But if we’re aware of our biases, then we can stay in honesty while listening.
Our nation is in denial about all the harm we’ve done. ‘”We’re peaceful,” we say, while we drop the bomb in Afghanistan and support war all over the world. I don’t think we can hope for much until we transform and begin to listen, and then it’s going to be a rough road.
What advice do you have to our readers if they want to begin incorporating compassionate listening in their lives?
Gene: l recommend they find other people and practice together. Go to my Website, www.coopcomm.org and you will find my training booklet, “Compassionate Listening: an Exploratory Sourcebook for Conflict Transformation.” They should do it together as a team; they could do it in their Sanghas. Try going door to door, as I have suggested, and then come together and share your experiences. It’s good to go representing a group, taking a poll or survey. See how you’re doing by writing a “love letter” to the person you dislike or hate the most. My sourcebook has many of these kinds of suggestions.
I’m amazed about all the new efforts to listen in our country. I think it’s thrilling. It’s amazing how effective it is in our personal life as well as our public life. Keep saying no to things you don’t believe in, but look for the truth in the invitations. Don’t worry about any outcome; go on growing and learning that’s the reward.
Gene Knudsen Hoffman is a Quaker peace activist who has pioneered compassionate listening practice for over thirty years. She has become a legend in the peacemaking community through bringing compassionate listening to the heart of the world’s greatest conflicts in Russia and the Middle East. Gene offers a step by step manual on this practice, available on the internet free of charge, at: www.coopcomm.org
Compassionate Listening: An Exploratory Sourcebook by Gene K. Hoffman
In Compassionate Listening, we do not seek to change those who share with us, we seek only to love them. The more people are loved, the more freedom they have to respond to their own inner truth which may or may not prompt movement. The only change we can be assured of is that if we truly listen to our fellow human beings, we ourselves will be changed.
What are the results of Compassionate Listening?
People who are involved with Compassionate Listening projects report them to be transforming experiences usually for both the listeners and speakers. Those in conflict have the chance to learn about one another as human beings and potential friends. Their understanding of the complexities of issues addressed are broadened and deepened. Their preconceptions are often shattered, their abilities to listen and be present are challenged and expanded. They find new understandings of themselves and others. Often listeners remark at what a reciprocal experience they have felt, despite only taking the role of listener.
When not to get involved with Compassionate Listening
You must not try to take on the Compassionate Listening role around an issue where your own experience is too fresh or painful. You will get hurt, and you will l hurt those with whom you set out to build bridges. You may need to rest and come back to the issue later.
“Reconciliation is a great art which requires us to understand both sides of a conflict, but we who are not in the conflict also bear some responsibility. If we had lived in awareness, we could have seen the beginning phases and helped to avoid it. The reconciler is not a judge standing outside the conflict, but becomes an insider who will take his or her responsibility by understanding the suffering of both sides. The participants in the conflict should communicate clearly how they see the suffering endured by the other side. The conflict’s resolution should be offered on the basis of benefit to both sides. Our purpose is the realization of understanding and compassion.”
Thich Nhat Hanh