Friday, December 25, 2009

Listening as the Practice of Nonviolence

Few things promote peace and human well being as effectively as listening. To listen, to really listen to another with our whole mind and our whole heart is not only a great gift to another, it is a way of saying to that other “I see you” in all your fullness and complexity and I want to understand you better by giving you my undivided attention. A few years back, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his associates said “Democracy means paying attention.” By that they certainly meant that we cannot do our part to give voice to ideas to help the community get better without paying close attention to what is going on around us. But giving voice to what is needed most is the result of paying attention that begins and ends with listening. Incidentally, the etymology of the word listening suggests that it literally meant at one time "to pay attention." Without listening, the self-esteem of those around us suffers. Without listening, rich, enlightening experiences go undocumented. Without listening, critical concerns continue to fester. Without listening, learning itself is impossible and growth is hopelessly stunted. Listening is one of the keys to Education as the Practice of Nonviolence.

When we listen actively and well, we lose ourselves, we literally lose ourselves in the process of absorbing the concerns and experiences of another. The person to whom we are listening holds center stage. Her issues become our issues. Her worries become our worries as well. To listen fully has nothing to do with problem solving either. In fact, problem solving while listening just gets in the way of the listening part. To be able to hear another, to digest what is being said, and to register that you understand at least to a degree what you have heard is a great accomplishment in itself. To go beyond this all-important listening to ask questions that are the extension of listening, that are meant to amplify what you have heard, not to resolve the problem described, is also an important sign that you have listened closely. The educator Parker Palmer refers to a Quaker custom known as the Clearness Committee in which the person “owning” a problem has a chance to recount a story about that problem and then opens himself up to a committee of people whose job it is to clarify the problem through questioning. The point is not to critique the problem, to recall how others have handled a similar problem, or to suggest possible solutions, but only to listen well enough to ask questions that will help the owner of the problem get clearer about the situation and how to approach it. Many people find this difficult, but those committed to Education as the Practice of Nonviolence, who may also find it quite challenging, know how valuable such close listening can be, because responsibility for resolving the issue stays with the original “owner.” The possibility for a successful resolution, however, is enhanced through the intervention of an open, selfless, non-judgmental, "sharp-eared" group. That group wants nothing more than the "owner" of the problem to work his way through the problem in a constructive way, and is especially eager to do this as facilitator, sounding board, and open-ended questioner. What could be more respectful, more life-giving, more likely to add to individual growth than to be that kind of generous supporter of another?

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