Compassionate Listening — First Step to Reconciliation?

 a  talk by Gene Knudsen Hoffman
given November 25, 1997, at University of California at Santa Barbara

Gene Knudsen Hoffman, a writer, therapist, and international peace worker, was invited by Project Crossroads to talk about Compassionate Listening, a unique tool for reconciliation.  Ms. Hoffman developed this tool after realizing that all parties in a conflict were wounded and needed to be heard.  Her overarching principle is that hearing each other’s story reveals unhealed wounds and allows for mutual compassion and understanding.  In this way Compassionate Listening helps to build bridges between individuals and communities in conflict and can ultimately lead to reconciliation.

Reconciliation is the most difficult of peace processes because it requires the resumption of relationship between those in conflict.  It means the coming together in harmony of those who have been sundered.

My sense is that if we would reconcile, we must make radically new responses to the radically new situation in a world where violence is mindless, hopeless, meaningless and so many nations have nuclear weapons — if they don’t now, they soon will.  We must move beyond initiatives we formerly used, into realms we have not yet considered, not yet discovered, trusting that there are always open to us new divine possibilities.

We peace people have always listened to the oppressed and disenfranchised.  That’s very important.  One of the new steps I think we should take is to listen to those we consider ‘the enemy’ with the same openness, non-judgment, and compassion we bring to those with whom our sympathies lie.

Everyone has a partial truth, and we must listen, discern, acknowledge this partial truth in everyone – particularly those with whom we disagree.  That remarkable saint, Thomas Aquinas, would support this, for he wrote: “We must love them both, those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree.  For both have labored in the search of truth, and both have helped in the finding of it.”

To reconcile, we must realize that both sides to any violence are wounded, and their wounds are unhealed.  From my study of post-traumatic stress disorder in Holocaust victims and Vietnam Veterans, I am persuaded that a great source of violence is our unhealed wounds.

In 1980 I had a life-changing experience.  I was on a world tour of peace centers to learn what I could bring back to the USA.  Outside the London Quaker Meeting I saw a huge sign which said: “Meeting for Worship for the torturers and the tortured.” I’d long known I should listen to the tortured – but listen to the torturers? I’d never thought of that.

I began wrestling with the idea that I should listen to both sides of any conflict and when I arrived in Israel I began listening to Israelis and Palestinians.  I found it changed my perspectives on each.  I began to practice it everywhere I went.

In 1989 my work-focus became the Middle East, and in that year a small group of us from the Fellowship of Reconciliation went to Libya to listen to the Libyans after we’d bombed Libya twice, first to kill Khadaffi and second after we’d downed two Libyan planes over Libya.  We knew our governments’ side and we wanted to hear the other.  We did.

After ten days in Tripoli, as guests of the Libyan government, we learned a lot.  We met with Libyan leaders, professors, government members, religious representatives.  We had new messages to present to our government such as “Please remove the mines you’ve deposited in the Sahara Desert [during World War II]; we can’t do it alone, – please resume conversations with our government over our differences – and please let Libyan students return to American Universities.”

  Our government wouldn’t listen to us, since we’d gone there illegally.  So we wrote our articles, spoke publicly where we could and were considered ‘dangerous.’

My next efforts were on my own.  Between 1989 and 1996, I went to Israel and Palestine some seven times to listen to both sides.  I listened to Israeli psychiatrists, Settlers, government members, peace people, writers, publishers and plain people.  In the West Bank, since I stayed in Palestinian homes, I had more opportunity to listen to the people: refugees, families, parents whose sons had been killed, some of their sons who hadn’t, academics, peace leaders, and twice I met with Yassir Arafat.  Out of those experiences came Pax Christi’s Just World book of 1991 called Pieces of the Mideast Puzzle.

The breakthrough for beginning to practice Compassionate Listening in the Middle East on a broader scale came in 1996 when Leah Green, Director of Earthstewards’ Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy project contacted me.  She said she had read everything I’d written on Compassionate Listening and she would like to have her delegations to Israel and Palestine begin to practice it.  We took a group of 18 people to Israel and Palestine in November, 1996, for a trial run.  Now we are preparing for our first formal Compassionate Listening delegation, which will bring Rabbis and Jewish community leaders to listen deeply to Israelis and Palestinians representing all sides of the conflict.

Compassionate Listening is adaptable to any conflict.  The listening requires a particular attitude.  It is non-judgmental, non-adversarial, and seeks the truth of the person questioned.  It also seeks to see through any masks of hostility and fear to the sacredness of the individual and to discern the wounds suffered by all parties.  Listeners do not defend themselves, but accept what others say as their perceptions.  By listening they validate the others’ right to those perceptions.

  I’m not talking about listening with the ‘human ear.’ I am talking about discerning.  To discern means to perceive some thing hidden or obscure.  We must listen with our ‘spiritual ear.’ This is very different from deciding in advance who is right and who is wrong, and then seeking to rectify it.  And, it’s very hard to listen to people whom I feel are misleading, if not lying.   Hard to listen to such different memories of the same event – hard!

Here are two definitions of reconciliation we use.  Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese teacher, peace-maker, and poet, describes it as “understanding both sides.”1  Adam Curie, senior Quaker mediator from England, says “We must work for harmony wherever we are, to bring together what is sundered by fear, hatred, resentment, injustice, or any other conditions which divide us.  …I begin with a concept of human nature based on the belief in a divine element within each of us, which is ever available, awaiting our call to help us restore harmony.  We must remember this good exists in those we oppose.”2

I have since learned there are similar traditions and teachings in Judaism and Islam.  In his book, Jewish Renewal, Michael Lerner reminds us that “The Book of Jonah, read in synagogues on Yom Kippur, reminds us that compassion must be extended to the enemies of the Jewish people… (which means)keeping in mind at all times that they too are created in the image of God, and that distortions of them that lead them to wish us ill are the product of a world of pain and cruelty that shaped them in this particular way.3

From Islam comes this teaching by Abderrazak Guessoum, vice rector of the great Mosque of Paris.  “…Islam is tolerance, service, and mercy…though it may surprise many non-Muslims to learn it.  The Koran rejects all violence.  Even the notion of Jihad – so often translated as ‘holy war’ – actually refers to the struggle of every Muslim not to stray from the path of Obedience to the will of God revealed in the Koran”4

I believe that the call is for us to see that within all people is the mystery, the Spirit/God.  It is within the Afrikaaner, the Contra, The Americans, Palestinians and Israelis – everyone.  By compassionate Listening we may awaken it and thus learn the partial truth the other is carrying.

Here is a partial process: Thich Nhat Hanh asks this of us: “In South Africa the black people suffer enormously, but the white people also suffer.  If we take one side , we cannot fulfill our task of reconciliation.  Can you be in touch with both sides, understanding the suffering and fears of each, telling each side about the other? Can you understand deeply the suffering of both sides?”5

Finally, I treasure this quotation from the poet Longfellow: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”6


Gene Knudsen Hoffman expands on this theme in her 1995 Pendle Hill Pamphlet: No Royal Road to Reconciliation.  (Pendle Hill, Wallingford, Pa.)

Notes and Bibliography

1.  Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, Parallax Press, 1988

2.  Adam Curle, True Justice, Quaker Home Service, London, 1981

3.  Michael Lerner, Jewish Renewal, Harper Perennial, 1994

4.  Nell Platt, Passing from Belief to Practice, Reconciliation International 1987.

5.  ibid. 1

6.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Boston, Little Brown & Co.


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