...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Friday, August 20, 2010

Rethinking Our Idea of the 'Perpetrator'

by guest blogger, Catherine Keene

Catherine Keene
When I first begin to talk to people about Compassionate Listening, I explain that our work requires us to listen to all sides of a conflict – both victims and perpetrators – in order to get a better understanding of the whole situation and find the humanity in all parties involved. Although most of the people I speak to believe compassion to be an important virtue, many of them have a difficult time understanding why we would want to listen to those whom we believe to be perpetrators. At best, they believe this is a misuse of our time, as we should be listening more to the ones who are suffering than to the ones who are causing the suffering. At worst, they worry that our work will cause us inadvertently to validate the actions of the perpetrators and thereby encourage them to continue doing harm. So although they admire our compassion for others and our good intentions, they think we are somewhat misled.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this concern, and I've come to realize that it arises from a disagreement over what it is that causes someone to become a "perpetrator." If you believe a perpetrator has no conscience and is fundamentally destined toward committing evil actions, there might be no incentive to listen to this person, as there would be no hope for change. Or if you believe the perpetrator is completely illogical or even insane, you might see listening to this person as a waste of time because their perspective is outside reality and there is no point at which you can connect with them. In both instances, you might easily feel justified in listening only to the victims, rather than to all sides of a conflict.

But what if the party we think of as a perpetrator is neither sociopathic nor insane, but simply confused or acting out of fear? Will we help them see why they are wrong if we isolate ourselves from them or physically or emotionally attack them? Can we, as listeners, help to resolve a conflict by taking sides and labeling people? Based on my own personal experience – as well as the listening I have done overseas – I would argue that taking sides only causes all involved parties to cling more tightly to their own views and actions, regardless of which label they are given. Those who are called "perpetrators" often feel that they are being attacked by the outside party that labels them (and thus believe they are the victims), so in order to defend and justify themselves, they act out in retaliation and cause more pain. Similarly, those who are used to being called "victims" often believe themselves to be morally superior to the opposing party and look forward to a time when they can get their revenge. In this way, they become the next perpetrators. This polarization causes both parties to remain stuck in conflict, and the pain continues on.

I am reminded of Einstein's claim that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." So what new type of thinking can we use to break out of this cycle? I believe the answer comes in listening to both sides and admitting to ourselves and to others that we are all to blame for these conflicts. Every one of us has said and done things that hurt others – sometimes daily – and the more we attempt to justify ourselves and protect our egos, the more conflict we create. We are all victims and perpetrators in a multitude of ways. Even when we know that we are extremely fallible ourselves, it is so difficult for us to stop judging others and attempting to make them wrong, in order to assert our own identities. But we must keep in mind that when we label someone and judge them, we are internally distancing ourselves from this person. This eliminates the possibility for us to feel compassion towards them, as there can be no "suffering with" when we are caught up in making them wrong.

Just today I found myself becoming trapped in this polarization when I was reading the morning news. I read about a Christian Republican groupin Florida that is planning to commemorate September 11 this year by burning copies of the Quran. I will confess that my first reaction was outrage at the people planning this event, as I disagree that we will be able to make up for the trauma and loss of life in 2001 by insulting almost one quarter of the world's population and causing them to feel unsafe. At that moment, I most wanted to call these organizers and yell at them and tell them that their actions will only spread more hatred. But the more I thought about this response, the more I realized it would not be any more helpful for me to yell at them than it is for them to blame all Muslims for the 9/11 attacks. If I were to call them in anger, they would feel as though I were attacking them and not recognizing their right to observe the anniversary as they wish. They would then see themselves as the victims in this situation and try to convince others to stand up for their cause. I would get angrier, and they would feel more justified in planning their event. Nothing would be solved, and the tension would grow deeper.

So let's see if Compassionate Listening can free us from this trap. Instead of verbally attacking them and trying to make them wrong, I would like to do something truly courageous and attempt to listen to them. I will still call them, but instead of going in with the intent to "hit people with my peace sign," as Pema Chodron would say, I want to remain compassionate towards them and find out why they are so frightened of Muslims that they feel the need to launch an assault against them. If given the opportunity, I will explain that my fiancé is Muslim and I'm reading the Quran this month for Ramadan and that it is actually a book of peace that is full of wisdom, if we take the time to read it. Maybe I'll even ask them if one person there would be willing to read it, before they decide to burn it. (Of course this is based on the assumption that they have not yet read the Quran, but I find that most people who rant about how evil it is have never opened it.) But mostly I want to take the time to listen to them – not by pretending that I agree with what they are doing, but by explaining that it's important for me to understand why they feel the need to do this. It's important for me to remain connected to everyone, especially those with whom I most disagree.

In conclusion, I hope one day we will realize that the peace so many of us desire can never come from anger and hatred – it can only come when we are in harmony with all beings. So long as we insist on labeling some people "perpetrators," we must continue to label others "victims." But if we have the desire and courage, we can eventually get beyond these judgments and begin to practice real compassion.

Cathy Keene is the Managing Director of the Compassionate Listening Project
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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In Praise of Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Founder of Compassionate Listening

Gene Knudsen Hoffman, the founder of Compassionate Listening, died peacefully on July 19, 2010. Gene was a mother and grandmother, international peacemaker, counselor, Quaker, poet, actress, writer, teacher and so much more. She was a remarkable individual who influenced many during her lifetime. 

Gene was my treasured mentor from 1996 - 2004, until her mind rejected coherent patterns of recognition and communication. Even though I lost her years ago, her death has touched me deeply. 

Over the past two weeks I've been sifting and reading through a huge file of her letters, transmissions, and articles. Carrying around my three-inch thick “Gene file” like a precious jewel, I have been amazed at her voluminous outpouring and sharing. Some people never find or recognize their mentors in life. I am grateful that I found Gene, and that we both recognized the nature of our relationship. (Photo of Gene and Leah by Carol Hwoschinsky, 1997)

In the early 1990s, I was leading citizen delegations to Israel and Palestine for the Earthstewards Network. I felt frustrated that my work seemed to be adding to the polarization of the conflict in a part of the world where I had lived, and that I loved so dearly. I brought participants from the United States who were mostly pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. Almost everyone seemed to be caught up with side-taking. I was seeking a new framework for my efforts and continued to be drawn to the field of reconciliation. I found
the framework I was looking for in Gene's articles.

had begun her international listening work in the 1980s in the former Soviet Union. After Glasnost, like many working in the citizen diplomacy arena, she turned her reconciliation efforts to Israel and Palestine. As a young peace activist, I came across Gene’s articles and pamphlets regularly. We were both members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.), an organization she joined in 1952 and had worked with intimately. We both began our listening work in the Middle East in 1990 and had overlapping interests.

I finally called Gene in the spring of 1996, and invited her to join my next delegation and teach us how to practice Compassionate Listening with Israelis and Palestinians. Gene and I met the following week in Oregon. Despite our forty-year age difference, we discovered an instant “soul sister” connection that bridged the generation gap. It seemed that with every subject we discussed, we found another nest of connections. We knew and loved the same people, the same projects, authors, and ideas. We shared similar experiences and feelings about our activist histories, and the "enemy making" we experienced in the peace movement. We acknowledged the challenges of working with our own self-righteousness.

Gene immediately agreed to come with me to the Middle East that November. She also felt that Richard Deats, former Director of F.O.R. and then editor of Fellowship magazine, would be ideal for the delegation. Richard was an expert in nonviolence whom Gene had wanted to introduce to Yasser Arafat, founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

From the day we met, Gene had a mission to educate me about her reconciliation efforts, and most specifically, her “Compassionate Listening” work, and I had an equal hunger to absorb her transmissions. After our first delegation together, it was clear that she recognized me as one who would carry her work forward.

Gene writes about our partnership and our mutual commitment to reconciliation: “Sixteen years of one-on-one listening passed. My journeys resulted in more articles, more explanations, but no converts, as far as I knew. Before Leah, 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.’ “
(excerpt from: “A Lifetime of Global Peacemaking: An Interview with Gene Knudsen Hoffman,” The Mindfulness Bell, 2002, and her 1997 essay, “An Enemy Is One Whose Story We Have Not Heard”)

I was the eager recipient of Gene’s typed notes, letters and articles on Compassionate Listening, Love, Forgiveness, Anger, and
post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). She sent hand-written letters outlining details of our shared projects and practical applications. She sent notes and cards about her favorite books, and quotes and teachings from various teachers she admired. Two of the people she considered her closest mentors were Adam Curle, Senior Quaker Mediator, and Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Monk, peacemaker, and poet.

It was F.O.R. who had sponsored Thich Nhat Hanh’s first U.S. and international speaking tour in 1966. Gene wrote, “I was so 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, which I did. Thay, as we learned to call him, is particularly strong and powerful in his teachings on reconciliation. The international program I founded, Compassionate Listening, is based on his teachings.” (from the Mindfulness Bell)

Gene helped me secure funding to produce a film of our second Compassionate Listening delegation in Israel and Palestine – this time for Jewish participants only, including religious leaders. We dedicated the film,
Children of Abraham, to “Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Compassionate Listening Pioneer.” In early 1999, shortly after the release of the film, Gene began to receive so many invitations to screen the film that she thought she would have to hire someone to help her. She wrote that she was “overwhelmed, but of course thrilled” to watch the active spread of Compassionate Listening. (In the same letter, she encouraged me to lead delegations to listen to Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.)

Gene developed a Compassionate Listening curriculum in 1998 and began offering classes in Santa Barbara. The following year, I began to offer Compassionate Listening trainings in the U.S. with a different training model. Neither of our trainings focused on the Middle East. By this point, we were teaching what we called the “pure practice” of Compassionate Listening in the U.S., which was applicable to everyone in daily life. Several times, Gene, our Training Director Carol Hwoschinsky and I would gather with our growing community of Compassionate Listening practitioners for special weekends to deepen our collective understanding and practices. (Gene’s curriculum is included in her Sourcebook on Compassionate Listening, referenced at the end of this article. You will find our calendar of trainings

Despite Gene’s intention of being a full partner in the non-profit organization (we had changed the name from Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy to the Compassionate Listening Project), she eventually came to terms with her limitations and wrote to me that her traveling days were over. She asked to remain on the Board of Directors as “Co-Founder, and originator of Compassionate Listening.”

In 2002, I founded the Jewish-German Compassionate Listening track with my German friend Beate Ronnefeldt, a trainer of Nonviolent Communication. In the last letter I received from Gene, dated April 10, 2004, she thanked and honored me for pioneering the Jewish-German work, which she called “thrilling” and “an ambitious undertaking.”

Gene had thanked me profusely those last two years for this project - a testimony to her passion for Jewish-German reconciliation. In her work in Israel in the early 1990s, Gene had researched and written extensively about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among Jewish Holocaust survivors in Israel, and the role of PTSD in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She had interviewed Israeli psychologists who were considered experts in the field, and published articles and a pamphlet on the subject called “No Royal Road to Reconciliation.”

Those of us who study, practice, and teach Compassionate Listening can continue to learn much from Gene’s articles and essays. We practitioners have a powerful lineage, and our work is infused with Gene’s research, study, and practice in the art of reconciliation.

She was a pioneer in a new field, always seeking to clarify and challenge her fellow peacemakers. In a letter from Gene to a fellow colleague, dated June 3, 2000, Gene writes:
“About nonviolence: I question whether a gospel of nonviolence will save us. I think we have the doctrine, but not the necessary respect and concern for the unhealed suffering of oppressors and other violent people. It seems we rarely consider listening to them as a possibility for wider understanding. Instead, we have Nuremberg laws, and kill or otherwise destroy perpetrators through vengeance. We forget that Gandhi spent much of his time with his ‘enemies,’ listening to them and learning how to love them. I think it was his loving truth which was grounded in his respect for them as human beings that enabled them to set India free.”

In August 2001, Gene wrote to me: “I think I’ve found a motto we can all use as the subtitle of ‘Compassionate Listening’ on publications, stationary, and brochures. I think it expresses in a ‘nutshell’ what we are doing. It’s the title of one of my essays – ‘An Enemy is One Whose Story We Have Not Heard.’ What do you think of that?”

I love to think about Gene’s delight, knowing how far her work has traveled, and how many thousands have embraced her understanding of listening to those we consider the “other” or our “enemy.” Anthony Manousos’ book about Gene has brought her life and teachings into the hands of thousands (I've referenced Anthony's book below. You can also read his beautiful
tribute to Gene.)
We at the Compassionate Listening Project have taught all over the world at conferences, universities, churches, synagogues, mediation centers…with untold numbers of individuals integrating it into their own work and projects. We have taught Israeli and Palestinian peace leaders over the past decade, and in 2003 we created an Advanced Training and Facilitator Certification track in the U.S. We now have 23 facilitators with almost half that number currently working towards their certification. As a non-profit organization, our key challenge is having adequate staff to keep up with the requests for training.

The Compassionate Listening Project extends our loving arms to Gene and her family during this time of loss. We offer our deep respect and gratitude for all she gifted to us and to the world.

I honor you, Gene, for your remarkable lifetime quest in service to personal and collective healing. Thank you for your love, belief and investment in me personally, and in our wider community of compassionate listeners. You are and will remain the founder of Compassionate Listening, and the birth-mother of a movement.

With great love for you,

Executive Director, Compassionate Listening Project

To learn more about Gene and her Compassionate Listening work, I highly recommend reading:

Compassionate Listening and Other Writings, Essays by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Quaker Peace Activist and Mystic;
Edited, with introductory biography, by Anthony Manousos Click here to learn more about the book.

Sourcebook on Compassionate Listening
Click here to download Gene's free sourcebook.

Gene’s essays: Click here to read. 
Gene’s memorial will be Sunday, August 8, at 2pm at La Casa de Maria (800 El Bosque Road, Santa Barbara 93108).