Listen Up

There is an organization based in Denver called Seeking Common Ground.  It is a nonprofit whose mission is to promote peace-building between young men and women from “conflict regions” around the world.    Their flagship program, focusing on an area of perhaps the most intense conflict, is called “Building Bridges for Peace”.  It brings together 60 Israeli and Palestinian teens for intensive two week sessions with follow up in the participants’ home communities.  The focus is to teach the teens how to manage their intense and deep-seated hatred of each other.   The program is “designed to lead participants through both interpersonal and personal processes, to increase their capacity to feel compassion and empathy and to humanize the ‘other’.”

Can you imagine what it would be like to be in a room filled with 30 teens from each side of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for the first meeting?  I suspect you’d find more comfort and calm running through a pit bull farm with a steak around your neck. 

So how do they pull this off?   They do it through an intense process focusing on communication, development of leadership skills, and empowerment.  (Having pizza and dance parties from time to time helps as well).

A key component of the communication comes from the development of listening skills.  In the program they teach what is called “active listening”.  This is crucial because the way a person listens to another has an enormous impact on the quality and effectiveness of a relationship.

Most of us are not great listeners.   As reports, studies show that we remember anywhere from 25-50% of what we hear.  Breaking that down, if you are talking to somebody for 10 minutes, that means that at best, chances are you remember 5 minutes of that conversation.  You probably miss some important stuff. 

To become a better listener, active listening is the process of making a conscious effort to attend to everything the person is saying and making sure that you understand what the person is saying.   This is a technique that psychiatrists use and is one of the most valuable tools they have in the process of treating patients.  In fact, this skill would serve any doctor better; some studies suggest that a good portion of medical diagnoses can be made through taking a thorough history and physical exam. 

The process of active listening involves five elements.  The five elements include paying attention (eye contact), showing you are listening (often with occasional small nods of the head), providing feedback on what you have heard (by using such phrases as “So what I am hearing is…” or “Sounds like you are saying…”), deferring judgment (mostly by not interrupting and allowing the person to finish what they are saying), and responding appropriately (diplomacy).   Sounds simple but like any skill, this takes lots of practice. 

Active listening is a particularly great way to communicate with teenagers, who generally feel misunderstood and not listened to. 

In 2002, the Building Bridges group was especially strained.  There were funding problems and the group was much smaller than usual.  It was also held during a time of an intense escalation of violence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.  There is a documentary that follows some of the participants from this group called “My So Called Enemy”.   One of the Palestinian participants talks about her experience.  She had recently lost her father to a heart attack partly because the ambulance had to get through an Israeli checkpoint and didn’t get to the hospital fast enough.  She joined the program to

    “…meet with Jewish-Israelis and tell them that they killed her father.   She wanted them to know that she was the face of a suicide bomber and given the chance she would strap bombs to her body and kill as many of them as she could.”

After the two week program, this same young woman was in tears.  She was asked what was wrong and answered,

   “…that she no longer wanted to strap bombs to her body and kill the Jews…She recognized that she and these other young women were all victims of violence in the Middle East.  She did not want to live under occupation but she also understood the fear and pain of the ‘other’”.  

She had in fact become close friends with some of the Israeli participants. 

If active listening can work for this group, don’t you think it could work for you?

-References from Melodye Feldman, Co-Founder and Past Executive Director of Seeking Common Ground.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.