Adventures in Listening
by Herb Walters
ADVENTURES IN LISTENING
I want to speak just briefly on the whole idea of
universalism, since that’s what has brought us all together and I’d like to
share a little bit about my own background. I was raised Catholic, and I’m now
a Quaker – a member of the Celo Friends Meeting, which is part of Southern
Appalachian Yearly Meeting. I am also a practicing Buddhist, and I have had
some experience in Native American religious tradition. This past summer, I had
the pleasure of experiencing Hinduism in Indonesia. So when someone says, “What
religion are you?” I give a different answer each time. The fact is, it really
doesn’t matter what you call yourself. What I have found is that words are easy
to come by, and I’ve heard many things said in the name of religion. What
really matters is what people do with their lives. How they live out their
faith and what they do with what they believe and what impact they have on the
world and on their neighbors. That is the essence, I think, of religion.
That is what we’re going to be talking about this evening,
too, in the area of listening. I think listening is one of the most powerful
forms of living our religion that I know of, and I’ve been fortunate to explore
it in many ways.
I grew up in a military family. I think that’s one of the
reasons I do the work I do and one of the reasons I started the Listening
Project. My father was a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the
Vietnam War. He was in Vietnam at a time I was protesting the war. He just died
a year ago from cancer. A doctor told us that my Dad’s cancer could have been
caused by the Agent Orange he was exposed to in Vietnam.
My father and I went through quite a reconciliation process
before he died. Even before that, I had realized that he was probably one of
the main inspirations for my involvement in peace work. His life was a life of
service and my life has been devoted to service. I understand how my father
felt – that by serving in the military he was serving humanity and the cause of
peace. That’s difficult for some people to see, but I think that’s the essence
of what the Listening Project is about.
Many times in social change movements, activists help
polarize the situation. We create enemy images, just as anyone else does. They
are the bad guys, we are the good guys. Or they are the people who don’t
understand, and we are the people who do understand. So when we approach people
in this way, they feel defensive and the potential for change actually
decreases. We don’t really listen to people who disagree with us – listen to
their fears and concerns – so they become even more polarized against us. Too many peace groups are largely
isolated and seen as “outsiders” or fringe groups in their own communities.
That was one of my primary reasons for starting the Listening Projects. I saw
people in the peace movement going out to preach, to convert, to change people
and tell them what was the right way, but very little true communication was
happening. As you know, the minute you’re preached to, you become defensive,
because the people preaching to you seem not to really care about who you are
or what you believe. All they care about is changing you.
So the Listening Project was an attempt to break through the
isolation and barriers that separate people into the good vs. the bad; liberal
vs. conservative; hawks vs. doves. The Listening Project is an attempt, through
deep listening and non-violence, to get down to the basic human values that
really connect us all. These are the same values that connected my father and
myself. Deep down in us all there is a desire for peace, for goodness and for
justice. For each person those feelings come out in different ways and in some
cases they get covered up, distorted or hidden by painful human experiences, by
fear, insecurity or lack of knowledge. As children, we’ve all learned ideas
from adults that we later found to be negative or problematic. My father grew
up as a poor farm boy. He had no other opportunity to change his life than to
join the military. The military became his way of understanding world issues.
There was nothing intrinsically wrong with him that made him go into the
military and want to use those kinds of solutions. It could have been me. Any
of us could have ended up in the military instead of at a Quaker gathering
Our first Listening Project actually related to this issue
of peace activists and people in the military. It was in 1986 in St. Mary’s,
which is a small town in south Georgia. Someone asked me if I would speak about
working down South. I am a Southerner. Yes it is difficult to work for social
change in the South. Southern people are very friendly, good people, but people
are less open to progressive, new ideas in the South. The Moral Majority, the
Religious Right, the Klan – they’re still alive in the South. St. Mary’s is a
small town where the Navy base has been expanded to be the East Coast home port
for the Trident nuclear submarines. One Trident submarine has four times the
firepower used in World War II. Activists from outside of St. Mary’s had been
coming into the community to do prayer vigils, protest walks, civil
disobedience, and all the rest. It was the traditional Vietnam era approach to
dealing with peace issues. The result was that the protesters were pretty much
seen as outside agitators, or they were just ignored. They had virtually no
support from the people in the St. Mary’s community. So when we got involved,
we asked Trident activists to go to the homes of people in the community and
not preach to them but listen to them and hear what they had to say.
The Listening Project involves listening at a very deep
level so that one builds a relationship of trust and respect between oneself
and the person doing the speaking. We try to be non-judgmental and not react to
things the other person may say. The other person must be allowed to start from
where she or he needs to start. As this trust is built, people open up and
begin to reconnect with their basic yearning for goodness and peace. What
normally prevents that opening up from happening is a polarization process.
People aren’t able to overcome their fears. When we tell them that what they think is all wrong, they feel that
they have to defend themselves. So while we’re sitting there telling them what
all the right answers are, they’re figuring out a way to say, “Yeah, but this
is what I believe.” They defend
At St. Mary’s we listened, and we asked questions that got
people to begin really thinking about what it meant to be living in a community
where the Trident submarine was. We asked questions related to how they felt
about the base, and ultimately asked questions about how they felt about the
risk their children were experiencing living in a world dominated by nuclear
weapons. We asked them questions that got them to go deeper into their
feelings. What we found is that indeed people really did care.
Now, these are Southern people whom most people would call
rednecks. Many people would write them off, saying they're never going to be of any help. But many of them are
really vulnerable, caring people who have been disempowered, so that their own
values and feelings have been covered over by fear and defensiveness. Some may
outwardly support nuclear weapons and the arms race, but through this process
of listening to them, we gave them the opportunity to really go deeply into
their feelings, their fears, hopes and ideas. We didn’t judge them at all and
we found that many were able to actually change some of their ideas and
beliefs. They were able to express their concerns and, for the first time, say
that they were afraid. People told us they didn’t like what was happening, that
they wanted things to change. It was powerful. Remember, this was in 1986 when
fear of the Soviet Union was still very strong.
Many peace activists went out fully expecting to have doors
slammed in their faces, because that’s normally how they think the public
relates to them. But instead, the main problem they experienced was that people
didn’t want them to leave their homes. People rarely have the experience of
being listened to, having someone say: “We care about what you think. We care
about what you feel. What you have to say is important.” This was a wonderful
experience for most of the people we interviewed in St. Mary’s and elsewhere.
Most activists ended up spending about half an hour or more with each person
they listened to. We used a list of ten or twelve survey questions and then
listeners asked additional clarifying questions that enabled people to go
deeper into exploring their thoughts and feelings. St. Mary’s was an important
project because it enabled some positive relationships to happen where before
there was only suspicion, apathy or mistrust. In that sense, listening is a
profound social change experience.
It’s also a profound spiritual experience, because when you
listen in this way, what you’re willing to do is let go of who you are and not
be so attached to your own ego. You open yourself fully to other people and
allow their essence to come into you. Then it’s a process of empathizing with
the other person.
One of the things we tell listeners is that if you disagree
with 90 percent of what a person says, start off by focusing on the 10 percent
you can agree with or at least relate to. What are our commonalities? Those
people in St. Mary’s all care about democracy; they all care about their
children. Many of them start off saying, “We want to build nuclear weapons.”
But the fact is, the reason they want to build more nuclear weapons is that
they have families and are concerned about their safety and protecting them
from the Russian menace. They have people they love – the same reason we’re
working in the peace movement, but it comes out in different ways. By listening
to people, we gave them the opportunity to begin to examine some of their own
ideas and thoughts and look closer at them and to see how some of them weren’t
really reflecting their deeper human values. We’d talk to someone and they’d say, “We need to build more nuclear weapons,” and we listened
and let them get out their anger and their
frustration and their fears. We’d ask them clarifying questions and they’d end
up by saying, “We need to have more negotiations, we need to stop this arms race.” The listening has proven itself
to be very powerful for social change. We don’t change people by clobbering
them over the head. We change people through an active process of love. That’s
what the Listening Project is about.
A more recent Listening Project was in Keysville, Georgia, a
small rural community of 400. In Keysville, we again had a situation where
there was a great degree of polarization. Keysville is a poor community with a
majority African-American population. At one point, some of the black population
realized that they weren’t
incorporated as a town, and therefore they had no tax base for meeting human
needs. There were people without water, and there was no sewage system or fire
department. People were without the basic services that most towns have. So a
group of African-American residents decided they wanted to organize and get
chartered as a town so they could elect public officials and raise money to
provide clean drinking water and other services. It seemed like a simple
But there were white residents in the community who came out
strongly opposed to developing a town government in Keysville. The opposition
was so strong that it took two or three years for the African-Americans to
finally succeed in getting their town incorporated so they could have an
elected town government.
In the process, the press came into Keysville and began to
talk about how Keysville was a prime example of racism in the 1980’s. Keysville
became a national issue. The story was on national networks and people were
coming in and talking about Keysville. It became a very difficult situation.
When a local government was
finally elected, it consisted of all African-Americans. No whites would even
run. Whites would not support nor be involved with this government in any way.
There was a completely polarized community with an African-American government,
but no support from the white community. So we organized a Listening Project.
We worked closely with the city council, the mayor and the
Keysville Concerned Citizens (all African-Americans) in setting up what the
goals of the project were – what they wanted to achieve with the project.
Together we developed a survey with questions that would open people up. We
brought in white people from outside and formed bi-racial teams, so that there
were both blacks and whites conducting the survey. We went door-to-door to the
homes of white residents, and we listened to them. Rather than talking to them
about how they’d been a problem, we asked
them questions such as, “What would you do to improve things here in Keysville,
if you were on the City Council?” So, rather than just assuming they were a
problem, what we did was ask them questions that put them in the role of being
a solution. That’s just one of the methods we use.
We also asked how they felt about various projects that the
city government had already undertaken. We found that they didn’t even know
some of those projects were done by the city government. When they learned what
had been happening, some whites began to develop more appreciation for the city
government. We also found that one of the primary reasons for white opposition
was a fear of taxes.
Part of the problem was racism. There were people who just
didn’t want black government. We also found that there was a lot of confusion,
a lot of misunderstanding, a lot of hurt. Some whites had been hurt by the fact
that the press had come in and called them racist, even though they hadn’t been
a part of the opposition to change. It was a complex situation, and outsiders
coming in and saying it was all racism had not helped. The Listening Project
was able to begin a process of
healing in the community. I think white residents felt positive because they
were being listened to and were able to talk about their concerns. I think the
African-American residents felt good about some of the positive attitudes they got from white residents. After the
project was completed, several white residents came out publicly, for the first
time, in support of the town government. Several of
them began working for the first time with the African-American officials. A
bi-racial human relations council was formed even though some people were
afraid to join it.
There’s still plenty of work that needs to be done in
Keysville. Our project wasn’t a big thing in comparison to the tremendous
struggles and victories of the Keysville Concerned Citizens, but at least we
began the process of healing and reconciliation. That was important, because
all the work that this local government was trying to do was simply being held
back by racial divisions.
Basically what the Listening Project is about, is taking the
concept of listening and applying it in the area of social change. It’s hard to
communicate to some people how important listening can be, and how valuable and
powerful a tool for change it can be. People tend to think of listening as too
soft – not strong enough really to change things.
People say: “We want change now! We don’t want to just
listen; we want action!” I’m not knocking demonstration and civil disobedience
as means of achieving change. I think they are valuable forms of action. But I
do believe they are overused and abused methods of working for social change.
There is also great strength in gentleness and great transforming power in reconciling
with our opponents rather than just defeating them.
We’ve had several opportunities to do Listening Projects
internationally. The most recent was in Palau. When I first heard from the
Catholic Commission on Justice and Development in Palau, they said there was an
issue that had completely divided the whole country. Palau is a group of
islands in the Pacific near the Philippines. The issue was the Compact of Free
Association which had to do with the degree of independence Palau would have
from the United States. It also involved the fact that they are a nuclear-free
zone and the United States wanted a relationship with them that would give the
United States government access to land for military bases and nuclear weapons.
The Compact was a very complex issue, and it had completely polarized the
country into those for and against it. The Catholic Commission wanted a
Listening Project to help them break through the polarization.
When I arrived in Palau, I was informed that the Commission
had decided not to do a Listening Project on the Compact because it was too
explosive. They had decided that it would be better to focus on development
issues and talk about the Compact indirectly. The Compact had divided families.
There had been a bombing and there had been a house burned down. It was thought
that the matter should not be addressed directly. I respected their decision –
but at the same time I felt they would be passing up an opportunity to use the
Listening Project on this important issue. So I talked to them more about the
Listening Project. They finally decided to focus on development but to have
several questions focus directly on the Compact.
What happened is what often happens. The Palauan activists’
images and stereotypes of people – how they thought people would react to the
issues – were not accurate. Many
thought that people were so divided on the Compact that they could not even
talk about it. They thought there would be angry responses if the issue were
raised. In fact, because we came as listeners, people were eager to talk about
We designed a questionnaire that asked people if they wanted
to learn more about the Compact from unbiased sources. Virtually every single
person said yes. They were actually very hungry for information. They wanted to
know more and they wanted information from someone not promoting one side or
another. So through listening, the Commission was able to work on this issue in
a way that responded to people’s needs. They were also able to identify other key
development issues and find new people interested in working on those issues.
Activists have lots of stereotypes of the general public.
One is that many people are apathetic. We
have found through Listening Projects that most people really do care,
but they also feel powerless to change
things. They feel overwhelmed, powerless and confused about what to do. So they shut down and sometimes
take on attitudes and beliefs that protect them from their confusion and pain.
Quick easy answers such as, “Build a stronger military” or “Those blacks are
causing all the problems” can take hold in this fertile ground. But underneath
it all, within each of us, there’s still a person who cares and who believes in
peace and equality.
Many people don’t turn toward joining a social change group
because they too have negative stereotypes – of the activists. Listening
Projects can help reduce stereotyping and prejudices coming from people on both
sides of an issue. In a Listening Project we focus on our common humanity rather
than our differences and prejudices. We build trust with people so they can
wrestle with their beliefs and ideas and get in contact with their positive
human values. It doesn’t always work but it’s remarkable how often it does
I was interested in the sharing we did earlier in the day on
listening – in the context of different spiritual traditions. The woman who
spoke about her Christian beliefs, and the co-creation speaker and others were
all excellent. I was thinking that each had much to offer us. I thought about
the symbol from Christianity of the death
and the resurrection of Jesus, and I related that, at one point, to listening.
When you really listen, what you’re doing is actually going through that death
and resurrection process. What happens when we are truly listening is that we
need to let go of ourselves fully, let our egos die. This enables us to be
completely open to the moment and to what’s happening to that person who is
across from us. You let your own ego die and you become fully open to the light
that’s in that other person. You are being open to mystery and the beauty of
life and the potential of that other person. In that sense, listening can be a
deep spiritual process that’s like a resurrection. A resurrection into the
blessing of each moment.
Listening is a way of empowering people. It’s a way of
saying to people, “What you think, what you feel and what you believe really
counts and is important, and you can make a difference.” In Palau most of the
people with whom we talked said they wanted more information and they wanted to
get involved. In Southern communities and areas that are probably some of the
most conservative areas in the country, we’ve gone in using a Listening Project
and a large percentage of the people have said: “We do care. We want to get
involved.” We’ve used projects to talk about social problems and military
spending and we’ve found that people have never had the opportunity before to
really explore their feelings and explore what they think and what might make a
positive difference. One very important aspect of a Listening Project is that
the group conducting the project is committed to following up with people who
express an interest in getting involved. Listening Project participants are
committed to acting on some of the input and ideas that come from people. So
even after the active act of listening has concluded, a process of empowerment
To end these comments, I’d like to say that listening is
both a spiritual and a social change process. It is a process of opening to the
potential and the goodness of other people. It’s a process of understanding the
basic differences that separate us and the common human values that connect us.
Thus we can appreciate and care about other people. We can learn to love, not
because we think we should be loving, but because we experience empathy – the
ability to truly understand the other person. Understanding and listening are
the seeds and water of compassion. That’s something that we as Friends can
strive for in all areas of our lives. I am very grateful for the opportunities
I have to use listening in my work and I am continually challenged by my
need to incorporate listening into my personal life.
This talk was
concluded with an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. These and the
Q: How can I
get more information and get involved with something like this? I’ve never
heard of it before.
Herb: There are Newsletters available and will send further information to
people here tonight. Unfortunately, the Listening Project is pretty complex.
It’s not something that happens easily. It involves quite a period of training
and orientation. Thus we’re not able to do a lot of projects, but we
are working in many different communities. Probably the next one that
will happen will be down in North Carolina around environmental issues. We are
also beginning to be able to offer projects outside the Southeast. So the main
way to get involved is to stay in touch and find out when projects are happening
and then come, take part in one, or find a need in your own community and
request a project there. We’re trying to train trainers as well, but it’s a
Q: How do you
move into the community? By invitation or sponsorship by a group that’s in the
Herb: It’s only by working with a group already in the
community. Sometimes we’re just asked to come. Sometimes when we set a
situation, we let the people involved know what we can do to help. Next we have
to go through the process of helping them understand how the Listening Project
can help them and their situation.
Q: Would you
mind saying how you got involved- – how that worked in Keysville?
Herb: Keysville is close to where I grew up. I met with
residents there to explain how we could work together. The mayor of Keysville
is a wonderful woman who was very open and interested.
Q: Before you
can listen, you have to have thought through what is a suitable question and
how you can ask it in a suitable way?
Herb: Right. The questions happen in two ways. One way is by
our working out, in advance, about a dozen survey questions that provide a
structured way of entering into the listening. The first questions are always
easy opening questions: “How long have you lived here in this community?” for
example. In St. Mary’s, one of the first questions was: “What are the positive
effects of the Kings Bay naval base here?” And then, “What are the negative
effects?” The second way builds on the initial questions. Our program enables
our trainees to ask both clarifying questions as well as others which draw out
people. As this is done we find these people expressing more and going deeper
into their thoughts and feelings. So it’s a combination of questions you
already have plus using questioning and communication skills learned in the
Q: Short of
going down to North Carolina, how can one get some training? Do you have any
printed material on this, or does there have to be a class? How do you work
Herb: I have printed material, but, as you know, this can be
used in all areas of life and it’s really basic. It’s active listening that
people understand from counseling and psychology. The Listening Project has
taken that whole approach and tried to break it down, tried to put it in terms
that were easier to understand, so that a common person could understand how to
use them. Then we built a structured way of using them for political outreach
and organizing. That’s where it gets a bit complex.
Q: Do you
have any plans to try to have other kinds of outreach? Because so few people
can go down and get into a project.
Herb: Well, there are going to be projects in other parts of
the country. We’ve just received some money to help us expand staff. One of the
problems is that we’re a small, grass roots organization. To date I’ve been the only field staff
person. But we train new trainers wherever we go. Thus we encourage growth, but
it’s a slow process. It’s frustrating, because as you know there are a lot of
people who say, as you do, that they’d like to get involved. I can’t give a
quick, easy way for people to get involved other than to say if you can’t come
to where our project is, it’s possible there will be one up in this area within
the next year. We could use a
staff of twenty and then we could work all over the place. But now we don’t
have that kind of financial ability.
Let me close by sharing our address and phone number so that
anyone who is interested in this work can get in touch with us. It is: Rural
Southern Voice for Peace – Listening Project, 1898 Hannah Branch Road,
BurnsviIle, NC, 28714. Phone (704) 675-5933.