Gene Knudsen Hoffman

Compassionate Listening

"If I go into the world to win, to control, to make peace through coercion, or to prove the righteousness of my position --- there is no way I can come to reconciliation. For reconciliation to occur, I need to have a respect for the divine in the opposition and enough humility to know that I don't have all truth on my side." - Gene Knudsen Hoffman


A January 2002 Interview with Gene Knudsen Hoffman
Gene Knudsen Hoffman, founder of Compassionate Listening

What is the nature of nonviolence?

I don't like the term nonviolence any more. I feel closer to Gandhi when he says truth force, God. I'm a Quaker and I've been involved with peace for fifty years.

What makes peacemaking so slow a process?

First of all, people don't believe in peace, in my opinion. We have never known peace. We don't even admit that we have been in many wars, so why should we make peace? We have talked about ourselves, at least Americans, as being a peaceful people until we believe it no matter what we do. It's a shocking thing. It's a practice of denial. Just not facing the reality. We are always calling other people war criminals, yet we're the ones who dropped the first atom bomb. We don't live with that reality. It is always the other person, like an untutored child who is always blaming someone else. We're in great denial about it.
On this "always the other" mindset. What breaks through that?

I discovered something in 1985 as I was going around the world looking for new peace initiatives and touring peace centers. I went to a Quaker meeting in London and outside the meeting was a huge sign, "Meeting For Worship For The Torturers And The Tortured." I'd never heard of anything like that; I mean, listen to the torturers? Then I decided that I was going to listen to everyone and everything. I started listening to both sides. We can never make peace until we can listen to both sides. No matter who is the enemy.

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I discovered that we have never fought a war and listened to both sides. We have never done it. We have always chosen what we thought was the best side that favors us. Then we make the other into the enemy. It was such an insight for myself. I started listening to both sides and started publishing articles for both sides, what their suffering was, what their grievances were. I called it compassionate listening. I developed a theory that if we don't listen to both sides we can never make peace.

Part of the conflict in Israel as I understand it is that they were children of the Holocaust. When people came out of the Holocaust they didn't have any healing for the post-traumatic stress disorder. [At that time] we didn't know about post-traumatic stress disorder. I'm a therapist and I learned about that much later, in the Middle East. On one trip to Israel I interviewed psychiatrists and psychologists. Two of the psychiatrists had written books about post-traumatic stress disorder of the military of Israel. The government of Israel destroyed the books.

The survivors had such intense fears from the holocaust and never were healed from those fears. Everybody said, you're free, now go live a good life. We didn't know the depth of this.; nobody in the army ever talked about their experiences. It was called shell shock; people came home with horrifying behavior. Nobody talked about it; nobody admitted it; nobody talked about how they had fought in war, an inhumane thing.

If then peacemaking is such slow work because it is the continual struggle to face reality, and also a continual struggle with self-interest, how do you get opposing people to listen to each other?

I maintain that we must listen to the oppressor as a human being. The oppressor has grievances, suffering, and we have to listen to both sides. An enemy is a person whose story we have not heard.

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It happened first in Alaska. The Compassionate Listening program was started by an Alaskan, Leah Green, Director of Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy Project for Earth Stewards in 1996. She had lived in the Middle East and she had become committed to nonviolence. In 1998 she took her first official Compassionate Listening delegation to Israel and Palestine. I went with her, listening to both sides. She was so pro-Palestinian; she couldn't see how we would listen to the Israelis. By golly, she learned. It is the most wonderful transformational thing. Leah is Jewish; she had belief in Israel, lost her faith in Israel, and compensated for it. Now she is doing wonderful work in both Israel and Palestine and has other leaders taking delegations.

The American Friends Service Committee in Seattle heard about it. The subsistence people and the hunters in Alaska were having a terrible conflict [with hunters and fishers]. It had gone on for 15 years. Nothing worked. They had sued the government, they tried mediation. Nothing worked. Cynthia Monroe, the director of Alaskans Listening to Alaskans, said we'd better try Compassionate Listening. I went up twice to train the Alaskan indigenous people and Caucasians involved with this particular conflict. They asked the hunters and fishers to listen to them. The fishers said, what is this stupid thing that you're going to [actually] listen to us? They said, just try it out. They encouraged them. The first time they came to a listening session, from all reports I've had, they went away saying we've never been listened to before in our lives. An incredible experience. They continued this for a year and a half. They didn't agree on anything until after a year and a half of listening to each other.

In the beginning you have them listen separately. They get their anger out. They get out everything they feel. They talk about it for a year before they do anything. They tell each other what the other side said. You go back and forth and back and forth. This is Thich Nhat Hahn's process. I know him well and I've studied all his work. This is the process they use in their order. If they have a conflict in their order, the elders sit and listen to the both sides until they are able to listen to each other. I don't know how many times they have to listen to each other. It depends on what the need is. Then finally the elders make compromises or agreements, because they begin to understand each other.

I got a letter recently from Alaska that they have come together and settled on this conflict. They want to go on listening. They want to learn more about each other. They made a video. In the video from the last session, there is a [scene with a] catch and release fisher and a young indigenous person. It was back and forth was telling about catch and release. "That when I look at the fish to see that we're from the same God." "I don't understand this catch and release thing." "The fish are small, and injured." The fisher said thank you to the young man for listening. The hunters and fishers made seven compromises with the indigenous people.

There is a person who asks a question of the group or the leader. There is no adversarial conversation. It is done very carefully so that if you cannot listen to a certain point of view, you do not go. If you cannot listen to the background of a person who has committed sometimes truly horrible crimes, you do not go. It's a little bit like listening to people in restorative justice. Restorative justice brings the victim and the perpetrator together.

What happens is that as you listen, you change. It's a transformation. People are never listened to as much as they need to be, [especially] children and certain criminal types. It doesn't mean the oppressors are right. It doesn't mean you agree with them, and the people have to know this before you go in. It doesn't mean you agree with them, but you look for the truth. You have to discern the truth. It's a process of discernment and intuition and listening.

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What roadblocks do you come across when you first start working with a group, guiding them into compassionate listening to resolve their conflicts?

The roadblocks you accept. You accept anything they say as their perception. You seek the truth. When you listen to people without [asking] adversarial questions, you don't have to agree with them but you have to respect the rage, which is what you are trying to reach beyond. In the meantime you go through all that they have to say and their history.

We still have to face in our culture that war destroys people. War makes heroes of some of them, and some who emerge from it will never do it again. Violence springs from fear. This is my perception. When you hear the grievances and sufferings of all people, then you begin to put it together.

Compassionate Listening is adaptable to any conflict. It is non-judgmental, non-adversarial, and it 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. To discern means to perceive some things hidden or obscure. 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. We must listen with our "spiritual" or psychological ear. Listeners do not defend themselves, but accept what others say as their perceptions. By listening, they validate the others' rights to those perceptions. An enemy is a person whose story we have not heard. Peace is a healing process that acknowledges both sides are wounded.

  • Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy

  • Further information about Compassionate Listening is available on the video "Children of Abraham" from Pendle Hill Publications, 338 Plush Mill Rd, Wallingford, Pennsylvania 19086-8099 USA. Telephone (in USA) 800-742-3150.

  • Also recommended is "Listening with the Heart, A Guide for Compassionate Listening" by Carole Hwoschinsky, available from Mid East Citizen Diplomacy, Post Office Box 17, Indianola, Washington 98342 USA.

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