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Skills for Getting to the Heart of the Matter

13 December 2010 7 Comments

Leah Green

Leah Green

This year Peace X Peace awarded Leah Green, founder and director of the Compassionate Listening Project, an  Honorable Mention for the Community Peacebuilder Award.

During a recent interview with Peace X Peace, Leah described the work of the Compassionate Listening Project and how heart-to-heart connections may lay at the foundation of building peace.


When a safe place is created for people to speak at the level of what is in their heart—the place beyond political opinions and soapbox lectures—the results can be incredible. That is what the Compassionate Listening Project is about. It’s about restoring the heart to its rightful role in our selves and in the world.

What we know and what we’ve seen over and over again in years of doing this work is that when people speak and interact from their heart, they create connection, trust and healing. Through the Compassionate Listening Project we’re giving people the skills to find the pathways back to their own heart. We’re reminding people that when we armor ourselves we are not only protecting ourselves from others, we’re also cutting off our most precious connection to our selves.

When people have a chance to hear the direct experiences and suffering of another human they crack open to the humanity of that person. That is the place where empathy and compassion are born. Suddenly, people see how they are connected and want what is best for another person. It is that magical space where even people who think they are enemies see the humanity in each other.

Compassionate Listening Training for Israelis and Palestinians, West Bank, 2007 (photo by Leah Green)

There is a lot written these days about mirror neurons. It is no mystery—when we see suffering we are hard wired to experience compassion and empathy. But that ability to experience compassion does not emerge through debate or even dialogue. Dialogue is often about political solutions and ideas; people may not get to the level of expressing their own suffering and pain. And that suffering and pain is what is universal. It breaks down walls.

Right now I’m teaching in Twin Rivers prison in Monroe, Washington. Last night was the first class. There were many men in the class who have never had any exposure to information like this. I was nervous about how willing they would be to being open in a prison setting.

Over the course of 2 hours, the men went through the practice of listening and speaking from the heart with each other in dyads. It became so clear to me how hungry they are for a safe place to share at that very deep human level.

At the end of the two hours, one of the men raised his hand and said,

“I want you to know that this is a very tough place. I spend 24/7 here being totally armored. I do that for my survival. Walking into this room and, in these two hours, being able to let down my armor, speak from my heart, and being heard from another man’s heart has given me hope again for humanity.”

I could see the lifeline that this 2- hour class was to this man. He, and so many others like him, do not have a chance to be human. It is very meaningful to be able to create spaces where this heart-to-heart interaction can happen—for people in war zones and prisons as well as for people just living their every-day lives.

Kirkridge, PA, March 2009 (photo by Phil Fratisi)

Compassion is having a renaissance with projects like Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion. Take for example, the city of Seattle. The city council of Seattle signed onto an initiative supporting the Charter for Compassion and acknowledged Seattle as a Compassionate City. As a result, there are many projects focused on compassion going on in the city. This is fabulous but if people don’t integrate the skill sets that allow them to demonstrate compassion in the heat of conflict, we’re not really getting anywhere. It’s not enough to be a fan of compassion; these practices are about embodiment.

We’ve got to be compassion.

Compassion is something that we say we value as a culture, yet we don’t teach skills for embodying it. So, families are in trouble, schools are in trouble, and workplaces are in trouble. And there is rampant conflict in the world.

We all have to be willing to do the work—to roll up our sleeves and do the hard practices. Whether it is compassionate listening or other similar modalities, people have to go out and immerse themselves in the practice. Just like anything else, to really practice and embed compassion in your being you’ve got to do the practices over and over and over. Otherwise, when you get into a difficult situation all you’ll have is a nice platitude.

People need to take the skills into their daily lives with their peers and families. We’ve got to model compassion in our homes and in our classrooms.

Advanced Training, Washington

Last year I trained twenty teachers in a local school district in compassionate listening. This year these skills are being integrated into their classrooms. My  dream is for this to happen on a worldwide scale. These skill sets need to be embedded into our education system.

Being able to speak and listen from the heart is a foundational skill set for everything else. If a child is not feeling accepted, supported and encouraged and if a child does not have a safe place to speak about their feelings and problems, their capacity to learn will be diminished. I believe that if we integrated these practices into school curriculums our world would change dramatically within one generation.

I want to make it really clear that our focus in these practices is not just “out there.” The first place that we have conflict and where we do violence is towards ourselves—through day-to-day self judgments and by saying “I’m not this enough” or “I’m not that enough.” It is easy to think that the violence is “out there” and we are just victims. But with this attitude, we ignore the violence that we perpetrate every single day. We don’t see our own self-judgment and how it flows out into judgment of others.

We need to be aware of ourselves—where we are speaking from—in any moment. We have to take responsibility for our actions, knowing that where we are speaking from has the ability to bring more peace or more conflict to a situation. In literally every moment, how we show up— including our judgments and our triggers—is our own responsibility. Our triggers are telling us about ourselves and not about the intentions of another person. They inform us about our wounds, needs, and capacities.

The place we start with compassionate listening is with ourselves, and it radiates out from there. In this way, we’re building capacities to be greater forces for peace in the world.

The views and opinions expressed by the authors of Voices from the Frontlines do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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7 Comments to “Skills for Getting to the Heart of the Matter”
  1. peg says:

    all of your readers/followers laud the idea but do not practice this with their family members. I hope some day it will sink in on the persoal level instead of a “good idea for others”.

  2. peg says:

    When people have a chance to hear the direct experiences and suffering of another human they crack open to the humanity of that person. That is the place where empathy and compassion are born. Suddenly, people see how they are connected and want what is best for another person. It is that magical space where even people who think they are enemies see the humanity in each other.


  3. Frank Salatino says:


    I am very impressed with the work that you are doing, especially in the schools. Very forward thinking.

    Your comment – “The first place that we have conflict and where we do violence is towards ourselves—through day-to-day self judgments..” really gave me something to think about. So true.

    take care and keep up the good work.


  4. Larry Snider says:

    I have had the privilege of joining Leah on two delegations to Israel/Palestine and I can tell you that Compassionate Listening is a critical building block in the process of changing relationships between people so that they can travel beyond their personal, political, national and religious story to expand enough to feel the pain of another and really hear their story and learn their truth. It is a path to open hearts and minds to see humanity where you never believed it existed and to follow your insight to repair a relationship or make a new and better world.

  5. Lois Sternberg says:

    Congratulation Leah on your Peace Award. I have seen first hand the effects of Compassionate Listening as practiced by you and your organization in Israel, the West Bank with people who are diametrically opposed to each others viewpoints. I am very pleased to see you expanding this program into prisons and schools. Your efforts are steadily changing the way people interact with each other and leading us all into more peaceful and compassionate solutions. Lois Sternberg

  6. Mary Latela says:


    I am happy to learn about your peacemaking work.

    I believe that we are not helpless in this sometimes chaotic world. I believe that we first need to make peace within our own heart – love our self, as is. Then we share that love with one other person in our everyday life. Two by two, we can change the world. Two to the 100th power is huge~

    Mary Ellen Latela

  7. Leah Green says:

    Thank you friends, for your comments and messages of support. I’m so grateful.

    Peg, the first place we ask people in our trainings to practice is within their own families. I could share the most beautiful stories of reconciliation with you. We are so unskilled as a culture in this regard…thinking that the skills of science and math are more important, for example, than the skills of peace-making within our families and in our children’s classrooms. Once people learn a pathway, they will use it. I have seen over and over that people don’t act because they don’t have the tool or the see a pathway. People leave our trainings excited to go and repair relationships and transform conflict, and that’s what continues to inspire me to do the work.

    I feel that we are living in a compassion-starved culture. Learning to meet ourselves and others with compassion is so critical…and ending the vicious cycle of victim-rescuer-persecutor dynamics that play out in so many aspects of our lives.

    Mary, I so agree – two to the hundredth power is huge indeed!

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