Author Archives: Dennis Rivers

There MUST Be a Better Way
Thoughts as the USA Stumbles Blindly Toward War with Iran

An editorial addressed to his fellow U.S citizens by Dennis Rivers
January 6, 2020

In the name of Jesus, who said “love your enemies,” and from the Inner Light of my own heart, I mourn the death of every person killed in war, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani of Iran included. May his children find consolation on the loss of their father.

To all those American politicians and commentators who have just said loudly, “No American will mourn the death of this man,” I ask this question: Is this the best that America can do? Is this all that America can do? How can we ask God to bless America if all America can do is kill people, assassinate leaders of other countries, and then threaten to kill even more people after that?

There MUST be a better way. We cannot possibly be so smart that we can put rovers on Mars, and then be so dumb that we can’t work out our disagreements with other countries. Continue reading

Beyond the Hall of Mirrors

Reflections on War, Terror and Human Interaction
Dennis Rivers — 2005 (Revised 2018)

Introduction. For everyone working in the field of communication skills and conflict resolution, the past few years of war and terror attacks have been a time of special catastrophe. Like the buildings of Falluja, Iraq, so many of our hopes and dreams for a better world lie in ruins. The recent bombings of the London subway remind me of how much we need, along with firefighters and paramedics, some deeper understanding of the struggles going on in our world today. We need some sort of intellectual compass to guide us through the storm of claims and counterclaims, alarms and calls to arms.

Many of the topics in this essay are beyond my personal comfort zone, but it is difficult for me to see how any communication trainer can now avoid them. War and terror, however justified they may seem to their participants, are the deepest possible challenges to all visions of cooperative communication, dialogue, compassionate listening and win-win negotiations. If our vision of the life of dialogue is not to wither away, I feel we must creatively and compassionately assert and explain it as an alternative to violence and coercive force.

In the following essay I want to explore some of the limits of coercion, in everyday life and on the stage of the world. For I believe what we are witnessing today could well be described as a giant contest of coercive force, a contest which I imagine all the participants will lose. I also want to explore some possible openings toward hope in this time of great suffering.

Our everyday language suggests that every war has a winner and a loser. One of the purposes of this essay is to explore the dangerous unreliability of this common idea. The idea that every war or contest has a winner and a loser, two possible outcomes, obscures at least two other significant possibilities: that the two sides might mutually destroy one another, a kind of tie of mutual doom, and also that whoever allegedly wins may have to pay costs far beyond what the victory was worth. If these third and fourth options were included in our everyday understanding and discussions of war, people might think more carefully before deciding to take up arms. They might try harder to negotiate, a fifth option. The same thing is true in everyday arguments. We imagine that each argument has a winner and a loser. What that thinking obscures is how often arguments destroy the relationship of the two participants. I view as deeply misleading our common pattern of using games such as chess or football as models for both conflict and communication in life .

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CHAPTER 1: The Magic of Dialogue — Daniel Yankelovich

The Magic of Dialogue
Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation

By Daniel Yankelovich

In this groundbreaking work, famed social scientist and world-famous public opinion expert Daniel Yankelovich reinvents the ancient art of dialogue. Successful managers have always known how to make decisions and mobilize coworkers. But as our businesses continue to expand, conversations and discussions just aren't enough to bring people and their different agendas together anymore. Dialogue, when properly practiced, will align people with a shared vision, and help them realize their full potential as individuals and as a team. Drawing on decades of research and using real life examples, The Magic of Dialogue outlines specific strategies for maneuvering in a wide range of situations and teaches managers, leaders, business people, and other professionals how to succeed in the new global economy, where more players participate in decision-making than ever before.

CHAPTER 1: Overcoming the Dialogue Deficit

Dialogue played a special role in reversing the nuclear arms race and ending the Cold War. Some years after the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, George Shultz, who had been Reagan’s secretary of state, asked Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, what the turning point in the Cold War had been.

“Reykjavík,” Gorbachev answered unhesitatingly.

He explained that at their meeting in Reykjavík, Iceland, he and Ronald Reagan had for the first time entered into genuine dialogue with each other — a dialogue that extended far beyond their main agenda (arms control) to cover their values, assumptions, and aspirations for their two nations. Gorbachev credited this dialogue with establishing enough trust and mutual understanding to begin to reverse the nuclear arms race.

In Oslo, Norway, in the year before Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, a delegation of top-level Israelis and Palestinians, previously implacable enemies, held nonstop dialogue sessions over a period of months. Together they hammered out a blueprint for peace in the Middle East that lasted until Rabin’s violent death upset the political balance.

These are history-making examples of dialogue. But dialogue is not the exclusive property of those who perform on the world stage. It works at all levels of life in ways large and small:

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BOOK: The Magic of Dialogue — Daniel Yankelovich

Order this book from a bookstore in or near your country:
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:: Japan :: New Zealand :: South Africa :: UK :: USA

The Magic of Dialogue
Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation

By Daniel Yankelovich

In this groundbreaking work, famed social scientist and world-famous public opinion expert Daniel Yankelovich reinvents the ancient art of dialogue. Successful managers have always known how to make decisions and mobilize coworkers. But as our businesses continue to expand, conversations and discussions just aren't enough to bring people and their different agendas together anymore. Dialogue, when properly practiced, will align people with a shared vision, and help them realize their full potential as individuals and as a team. Drawing on decades of research and using real life examples, The Magic of Dialogue outlines specific strategies for maneuvering in a wide range of situations and teaches managers, leaders, business people, and other professionals how to succeed in the new global economy, where more players participate in decision-making than ever before.

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Three Deep Lessons
on the Road to Communicating More Compassionately

Excerpts from a talk by Dennis Rivers — 20 minutes

This audio file is from a talk that I gave at a Buddhist gathering in San Francisco.  In the talk I report on the growing edge of the cooperative communication skills work presented on this site.  I have recently been asking myself “what are the deepest life lessons in this work?”, prompted by the fact that The Seven Challenges Workbook is being used by a prison inmate in the Mid-West to coach other inmates, in the hope that they will all be successful at rebuilding their lives and staying out of prison.  This talk grew out of our letters and phone calls.

::: A U D I O ::: P L A Y E R :::

Three Deep Lessons
Download as MP3 file:
Three Deep Lessons

Compassionate Listening — By Kari Thorene

From: YES! A Journal of Positive Futures – Fall 1998

Citizen diplomats in Israel use active listening
to help build the foundation for Jewish/Palestinian reconciliation

When Nachson Wachsman was captured by Palestinian terrorists, his family was thrown into a storyline all too familiar to both Israeli Jewish and Palestinian families. Within one week, a botched rescue attempt startled the terrorists, who responded by shooting and killing young Nachson.

His father, Yehuda, was still mourning the loss of his son when the father of the man who shot Nachson called him; his son’s actions had convinced him that enough blood had been shed between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Wachsman agreed. They arranged to meet in Jerusalem, and from that moment on the father of a son killed in conflict and the father of the killer joined together to work for peace and tolerance in Israel.

More and more, people like these two parents are working together to build sustainable peace between Israeli Jews and Arabs – an understanding that goes beyond what Leah Green calls “a paper peace.”

But how do we create a sustainable peace, where people can share the same streets after long conflicts? The answer, Green says, is “through the hard work of meeting one’s enemy and coming to know the human being behind the stereotype … of acknowledging the suffering in each other’s hearts. Peace walks hand in hand with reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing.”

And Green should know. A veteran of the Mid East peace movement, Green developed the Mideast Citizen Diplomacy for the Earthstewards Network in 1990 and has led 13 citizen diplomacy expeditions to Israel since. This year, Green developed her own independent project called Compassionate Listening Project in Indianola, Washington; she has taken one group to Israel since its inception and has two more trips planned, one in November of this year and one in April 1999.

Listening to enemies

Dialogue between groups divided by history and conflict can be nearly impossible, Green says. Without the necessary training, Israeli Jews and Palestinians would often sit together and yell at each other and think that they were engaging in healthy, positive work. That’s why Green integrated a precursor to dialogue called Compassionate Listening — to be practiced with both groups separately before they are brought together to talk.

Compassionate Listening is a process of respectful listening developed by pastoral counselor and Quaker Gene Knudsen Hoffman in the 1980s. The method has since been picked up and used by projects like Green’s Mideast Citizen Diplomacy and the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s newly founded Compassionate Listening Project.

According to Green, the idea behind Compassionate Listening is to set judgment aside while listening to an adversary, and look for the values and reasons behind their behavior. Anybody can do it — Green calls it the “most simple human psychology.”

In Green’s project, American Jews and others use Compassionate Listening skills in Israel. They meet with people — sometimes for two hours, sometimes for a whole day — to hear their stories and ask questions about their lives. Sometimes the people they meet prepare presentations, and other times the meetings act as interview sessions. Green says it really varies: politicians can tend to advocate a position while Palestinian families can be less formal.

It’s not always easy. Green says in the cases where people present canned speeches, delegates wait until they have a chance to ask questions about personal experiences with the conflict, so they can relate to the presenters as human beings instead of merely reacting to their politics.

For example, people from the Compassionate Listening Project met with a left/right wing Israeli dialogue group. Afterwards, the participants asked one of the Israeli settlers why she came to live in the West Bank (Israeli occupied territory). She told them about her mother, who survived the Holocaust and crossed several countries on foot to bring her children to Palestine. She considered it a blessing to raise her babies in the ancient Jewish homeland. The biblical Jewish prophets, she said, lived in the West Bank, not Tel Aviv.

The participants could relate to the woman’s love for the land. Once people are exposed to the complexity behind their foe’s perspective, Green says, they can come to understand how, if put under the same pressures, they might have come to take the same position.

Once the connection is made, participants reflect back to the speaker what they have heard. “In the situation with the Israeli settler, you might say, ‘What is really significant for me in listening to you is that I hear your incredible love for this land. I can really understand your love for this land.’ “

The willingness to hear the other person establishes a relationship that is trustworthy and safe from judgment – a place where the transformative potential in Compassionate Listening really lies. Without it, people can have difficulty making it to the next step of reconciliation after Compassionate Listening – dialogue.

In the case of the Israeli woman, Green says participants reflected back to her so well that she broke down and cried. “She had been cautious with us. Generally Jewish “peace” people are hostile towards Israeli settlers. We were not, ” Green says. After the bond was created, the group invited her to meet with Palestinians who shared a similar love for the land.

Green calls it building a bridge, and she hopes Mideast Citizen Diplomacy will continue making breakthroughs and introducing Israelis to Palestinians.

But it doesn’t always work so well. While Green says bonds are created in 95 percent of the meetings, sometimes participants struggle to find common ground to reflect. Later, participants debrief together and discuss ways that they can “reach down deeper inside of themselves” to make connections.

A walk on the other side

The Mideast Citizen Diplomacy participants have their work cut out for them in Israel, where the peace process has brought few tangible results on the grassroots level, Green says. “If you were to walk in Jerusalem through a Jewish neighborhood, you would see schools, sidewalks, health clinics, grocery stores, banks. But if you were to walk across the street and down a hill to a Palestinian neighborhood, you would see no streetlights, probably sewage in the streets, overcrowding in the schools. The lack of equality is profound.”

The inability of the “paper peace processes” to bring about independence for Palestinians and mutual security for both Israelis and Palestinians is creating a crisis in diplomacy between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, Green says. “There is a breakdown right now. Even the Palestinians who have been meeting for years with Israelis are saying, ‘we can’t continue.'”

During a 1996 trip to Israel, the Compassionate Listening Project delegation spoke to a former Jerusalem city planner who is a self-described “devoted Zionist and Jew.” Because of her work with the city, the planner found herself in Palestinian neighborhoods; for most Israeli Jews, just stepping foot into Palestinian territory puts their lives at risk. What she saw there changed her life.

She saw people whose ancestral land was confiscated and whose homes were bulldozed with only a few hours’ warning. Her own beautiful apartment complex in East Jerusalem was built on expropriated Palestinian property. She met Palestinians who relocated and rebuilt homes, only to have them confiscated and demolished again. She met natives to Jerusalem who had their identification cards revoked by government officials and were now considered illegal residents of their ancestral land.

Walking through Palestinian neighborhoods and meeting the people whose lives were reshaped permanently by land confiscations brought the city planner to see the Palestinians’ side of city policy.

To Green, the city planner exemplifies the power of understanding an adversary’s experience with conflict. “She now has the vision and the courage to advocate for equality among the Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem.”

Taking control of conflict

Compassionate Listening can bring larger changes, Green says. “If it starts with just one person and it grows; that is how peace begins. It is eyeball to eyeball,” she says, telling of one Israeli woman who created a dialogue group between Israelis and neighboring Palestinians after meeting with Green and the Mideast Citizen Diplomacy participants and learning about Compassionate Listening. “She kept inviting more people from her circle to come. She had already built a trust with the Palestinians, so from that point the circle widened.”

Once the ball is rolling, reconciliation doesn’t take a long time, Green says. “We’ve had breakthroughs within an hour or an hour and a half. People let down their guards when they aren’t being judged.”

Contact the Compassionate Listening Project at 360/297-2280

you are already a communication skills trainer!

By Dennis Rivers, MA. Adapted from from a talk given at the Santa Barbara
Community Counseling and Education Center.

Communication training for a transformed world
using a chambered Nautilus model of skill development, 
emphasizing self-help and peer support.

The chambered Nautilus model is a radical alternative to the normal way people think about learning new skills and teaching new skills to others.  Please allow me to explain some of the ways in which the self-help and peer support model of learning new skills differs from the professional training model.  I’m going to call the professional training model “the normal way” because it is so widely used in schools and colleges around the world.

The normal way

  • makes a strong distinction between teachers and learners,
  • marks the path of learning as a series of clear steps of limited duration,
  • celebrates the completion of the steps with the awarding of certificates and licenses, and
  • restricts who can teach to those who have licenses.

Someone other than the learner is in charge of the learning process. The people at the top of this pyramid earn money by providing services to the people at lower levels of the pyramid.  The normal way is as much about excluding incompetent practitioners as it is about recognizing competent practitioners. These are two sides of the same licensing process.  Because there is not enough room at the top of the pyramid for everyone, in an economic sense, and because not everyone can become high competent within the limits of existing training programs, the normal system must necessarily fail a large percentage, often a majority, of its participants, must declare them to be incompetent.  

Every now and then someone observes that any training scheme that fails to produce competence in many of its participants is itself a failure. This is the growing edge of educational thinking around the world.  Institutions that intend to help people learn, must themselves learn.  Unfortunately, the goal of the normal system right now is not to get everyone across the finish line of competence and excellence, each person receiving whatever help they need in order to make that journey.  I think it is important for us to be realistic about the fact that the normal system is set up in such a way that it serves some people well and fails many people.  Right now, I simply want to acknowledge that as a fact, and not go into all the arguments about whose fault it is, or about how competition creates excellence, and so on. (I accept that competition creates excellence among at least a few of the competitors.  My concern is the ratio of how many become excellent versus the total number who participate.  I am also interested in how many become permanently discouraged, because that is part of the cost of any training scheme and needs to be looked at and compared with open eyes. Gasoline that destroyed the engine of every third car would not be considered a great success, only something with great potential.)

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Reflections on the Struggle to Be Honest
with Oneself and Others

Honest conversations viewed as counseling
and counseling viewed as conversations that allow for honesty

by Dennis Rivers, M.A.  —  Communication Skills Trainer  —  1997
(included as a reading in Challenge Three of the Seven Challenges Workbook)

Preface:  I wrote this essay when I was teaching a class on peer counseling.  I was trying to describe in everyday language some of the good things that happen in counseling, that also happen often in friendship, good parenting, mentoring and ministering.

According to the psychotherapists Carl Rogers (in the 1960’s) (1), Margaret and Jordan Paul (in the 1980s) (2), and Brad Blanton (in the 1990’s) (3), there is one main reason people suffer in their relationships with one another. And it’s not best understood as some jargon about ids and egos and superegos. It’s that we need to face more of the truth and tell more of the truth about what’s happening in our lives, about how we feel and about what we ourselves are doing.

Many people, probably most of us at some time or other, struggle to deal with troubling feelings and problem situations in life by using a whole range of avoidance maneuvers: we may pretend nothing is happening, focus on blaming others, or try to find ways of avoiding embarrassment, distracting ourselves and/or minimizing conflict. The problem with these ways of dealing with inner and outer conflicts is that they don’t work well in the long run. If we try to deal with our problems by pretending that nothing is wrong, we run the risk of becoming numb or getting deeply confused about what we actually want and how we actually feel. And from tooth decay to auto repair to marriage, avoidance maneuvers won’t protect us from the practical consequences of our difficulties.

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What Kind of Person Am I Becoming
What Kind of People Are We Becoming Together?

Reflections on Interpersonal Communication  
and the Journey of Becoming a Person  
– – –  
by Dennis Rivers, MA  —  Communication Skills Trainer  —  1998


In recent years I have taught a series of courses in communication skills to groups of university students who are about to volunteer in prisons, county jails, juvenile halls and other criminal justice institutions. We focus on topics such as the power of supportive listening and how we come to know ourselves better in the process of explaining our experiences to someone. In their role as peer mentors they will be both using their communication skills and encouraging their mentored companions to develop better ways of communicating their way through everyday conflicts. The focus of my class and the focus of peer mentoring is largely tactical, how to listen and express yourself more competently. There are, however, larger issues connected with interpersonal communication and subtle but important transactions going on between coach and trainee. I would like to be able to tell my students, all of them headed toward challenging encounters, just what these issues are, but it has taken longer than I imagined to put the issues into words. In this essay, dedicated to my students, I will be exploring how the way we talk and listen is related to the way we live, so that coaching a person to communicate differently is at the same time coaching a person to live differently. 

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