Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 3: Compassionate Listening

“Listening creates a holy silence.  When you listen generously to people, they can hear truth in themselves, often for the first time.  And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone.  Eventually, you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.”
~ Rachel Naomi Remen, MD

Have you ever tried to listen to someone intently for three minutes without interrupting and interjecting, without letting your attention be diluted by questions and observations popping up in your head?  It sounds simple, but not easy.  This was one of the exercises we did at a workshop entitled “Compassionate Listening: Powerful Practices for Healing & Transformation” presented by Susan Partnow and Ilene Stark of The Compassionate Listening Project.

I wrote in my earlier post about seven common barriers to active listening. The inner workings of the brain may hinder our listening capacity.

First, the brain is a prediction machine.  In a conversation, it is always in a rush to figure out what comes next, causing us to jump to conclusions and complete other people’s thoughts.

Second, the brain has a limited attention span and working memory capacity.  Our prefrontal cortex, the brain region implicated in planning complex cognitive tasks, decision making, and moderating correct social behavior, is easily overwhelmed.  We can process just about seven pieces of information in our conscious mind at any given moment.  It makes it impossible to attend to several things simultaneously that require our concentration.   It’s not easy to pay focused attention to the other person’s words.

In addition, the brain has a negativity bias.  For our own survival and protection, the brain is wired to constantly scan the environment for threats and things that may go wrong.  At the sign of a perceived threat, the amygdala triggers the “fight or flight” mode.  As a result, our mind “freezes,” and we  either launch verbal attacks or withdraw from the dialogue. Strong feelings and emotions affect our listening, reasoning and judgment.

Finally, the brain is good at conserving mental energy and resources.  It filters out information that doesn’t comport with our own beliefs.  Once we’ve made a decision, the brain is happy to look for evidence that supports our decision, conveniently ignoring contradictory information.  In other words, we hear what we want to hear.

The goals of the compassionate listening workshop was to help the listeners and speakers overcome “defensiveness and reactivity” and connect heart to heart.  There is a lot that goes into the practice of compassionate listening.  Anchoring yourself in the heart rather then the head is not always easy.  Among other things, compassionate listening means:

  • being present;
  • “accepting, but not necessarily agreeing”;
  • looking for the common ground;
  • valuing opposing views;
  • seeking the good in conflict;
  • practicing forgiveness;
  • respecting yourself and others;
  • staying centered even when the emotions become intense;
  • being self-aware;
  • suspending assumptions and judgment;
  • being comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity;
  • resisting the urge to offer opinions, advice, interpretations unless asked;
  • trusting each person’s capacity to solve their own problems.

For more information on the practice of compassionate listening, visit The Compassionate Listening Project.

Related posts:

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 1: Collaborative Informal Problem Solving

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 2:  Cross-Cultural Communication

By | 2011-03-20T22:08:35+00:00 March 20th, 2011|Attention, Communication, Conflict Management|1 Comment

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 2: Cross-Cultural Communication

MBB CongressI continue with my reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress and offer a few more take-aways from one of the workshops I attended, entitled “Essentials in Relating Across Cultures” by Ed Ladon and Alan Gross.

We began with the discussion of culture as an iceberg metaphor.  Only about one-eighth of an iceberg is visible above the water.  A larger section of an iceberg is concealed below the water. Similarly, we can observe some aspects of culture, but a big part of it remains almost imperceptible.  It can only be suspected, guessed, or developed as understanding of the culture grows.

We shared examples of how cultures differ in their perceptions of time, intrinsic human nature, social relations, attitudes towards Nature, among other things.

My take-away is to approach cross-cultural work with an open mind as a learning experience. You need to do your reading and get a network of local informants who can help you navigate the more subtle aspects of the culture. Even still, you are likely to make mistakes and embarrass yourself occasionally.  What helps here is a sense of humor and humility, and open communication.  Setting expectations from the start that miscommunication may happen, things may get tough, and people may get angry, but it is all manageable if there is mutual respect and the desire to work together.  As Ed Ladon put it, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, at least, at the beginning stages, i.e. to learn.”

When you are in the host country, it pays to observe, ask a lot of questions, and listen. Become a people-watcher.  Flexible approaches help when you work on a cross-cultural project while assumptions hurt.

On a side note, I can’t help but think about the influence of cross-cultural experiences on the brain.  Research shows that culture shapes the brain:

East Asians tend to process information in a global manner whereas Westerners tend to focus on individual objects. There are differences between East Asians and Westerners with respect to attention, categorization, and reasoning.  For example, in one study, after viewing pictures of fish swimming, Japanese volunteers were more likely to remember contextual details of the image than were American volunteers. Experiments tracking participants’ eye movements revealed that Westerners spend more time looking at focal objects while Chinese volunteers look more at the background. In addition, our culture may play a role in the way we process facial information. Research has indicated that when viewing faces, East Asians focus on the central region of faces while Westerners look more broadly, focusing on both the eyes and mouth.

Here are some additional resources on culture and the brain:

“Cultural Neuroscience – Culture and the Brain” by Daniel Lende provides a good summary of the current research.

“Culture and the Brain” by Nalini Ambady and Jamshed Bharucha is the research review paper [PDF].

“Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition” by Richard E. Nisbett, et al is another paper on the topic, including cultural, historic, and business perspectives [PDF].

“Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity” by  William W. Maddux and Adam D. Galinsky is a paper on how living overseas boosts creative thinking [PDF].

“Culture and Attention: Comparing the Context Sensitivity between East Asians and Westerners” by Takahiko Masuda is a slideshow presentation with the summary of the current research.

Related posts:

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 1: Collaborative Informal Problem Solving

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 3:  Compassionate Listening

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 1: Collaborative Informal Problem Solving

I am writing this post as I wait at the LAX airport for my flight back to New York, while the memories are still fresh.  The 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress is over.  It’s been my pleasure and privilege to spend three days with so many wonderful people, doing great work all over the world.  I learned a lot and got the opportunity to present a workshop with my friend, colleague and a masterful communication coach Nancy Kay. Our topic was “Rewiring Your Brain: Neuroscience and Leadership in Conflict.”

The Congress took place on the beautiful UCLA campus.  The weather was perfect, sunny 70F, a welcome break from the harsh Connecticut winter this year.

The energy of the MBB Congress was truly global, with participants from various countries, speaking many different languages, involved in projects all over the world.  We heard about their work in Liberia, Sierra Leon, Colombia, Zimbabwe, and other places.  Mediators Beyond Borders is a relatively young organization, which is growing rapidly and extensively.  The MBB website says, “Mediators Beyond Borders – Partnering for Peace & Reconciliation is a non-profit, humanitarian organization of skilled volunteer conflict resolution professionals established to partner with communities in troubled locations worldwide to support them to build their conflict resolution capacity for preventing, managing, resolving and healing from conflict.”

MBB brings together mediators who volunteer their skills and expertise to work on various projects in the world, from supporting the re-entry of Liberian women ex-combatants into their communities to improving collaboration among professionals in Colombia, to exploring the post-genocide process of social healing and reconciliation in Rwanda through the documentary “Coexist.”

One of the take-aways from the MBB’s Congress was the realization that you don’t need to be a part of the government, or NGO or some other big entity to make a difference in the world.  MBB educated its members on how to start, plan, and implement projects through published guides and the vast knowledge of its mediators who have years of experience in international work and who are willing to share their lessons.

Each day at the Congress began with a brief meditation to help us center through breathing and appreciate the importance of being kind and loving to ourselves before we are able to give to others.  We had keynote addresses, break-out sessions, and panel discussions on various topics.  It was an intense but very rewarding experience.  I tried to take notes here and there and even tweet from the Congress under the hashtag #MBBCongress – it’s not an easy task to break complex ideas into 140-character soundbites.  Here are some highlights of what I was able to capture, which is just a small portions of what was transpiring at the event.

Lawrence Susskind gave a keynote address entitled “Mediating Human Rights and Other Corporate Social Responsibility:  Disputes on a Global Scale.”  He spoke about adding collaborative informal problem solving as a step to formal proceedings to generate agreements.  As Susskind observed, one of the challenges of treaty negotiations is that key negotiators arrive at the negotiation armed with what the truth needs to be, which precludes real explorations and discussions.  Informal problem solving can engage participants while addressing potential sovereignty concerns.  It doesn’t require rewriting of the formal rules of proceedings.  Participants can be invited in their personal capacity, rather than as governmental officials.   Finally, informal problem solving can be a step towards a proposal, rather than a decision.

Susskind addressed some common misconceptions about mediation, specifically, the notion that mediation requires the pre-existence of trust among parties and that it is about concessions and altruism.  He pondered whether the language of collaborative informal problem solving could be a better choice to overcome those misconceptions.  In his words, informal problem solving is about helping parties meet their needs most effectively – that’s all.

I will stop now as it’s time to catch my red-eye flight to New York…to be continued.

Related posts:

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 2:  Cross-Cultural Communication

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 3:  Compassionate Listening


By | 2011-03-20T21:52:09+00:00 March 7th, 2011|Change, Communication, Conflict Management|0 Comments