Compassionate Listening Deconstructs Fences

Caren: When my daugh­ter Beth was four­teen, she trav­eled with a small exchange group of teens to Poland where she would live with a cou­ple and their teen daugh­ter in a small vil­lage. In a true exchange, the Pol­ish teens then trav­eled to Min­neso­ta for a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence. Nei­ther group spoke the other’s lan­guage. Recent­ly, while clean­ing out box­es, I found a reflec­tion Beth wrote of that experience:

The Pol­ish kids taught me one of the most valu­able lessons I have ever learned; the pow­er of a smile … I thought that to cre­ate the iron strong bonds of friend­ship, a com­mon lan­guage was essen­tial. Now I have learned, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and lan­guage are not the same thing.

Beth is an adult now, yet through all the years, she and her Pol­ish “sis­ter” Ania have remained friends. Bor­der cross­ing can make an indeli­ble mark on a young person’s life and give her the courage and skills to widen her world. 

two friends in Poland
Beth and Ania trav­el­ing togeth­er 13 years after meet­ing. (pho­to cour­tesy of Elis­a­beth Stelson)

You don’t have to trav­el to anoth­er coun­try to cross bor­ders. You can cross bor­ders by cross­ing the street, step­ping into another’s neigh­bor­hood, or sit­ting next to some­one new. What you pack in your trav­el­ing suit­case is as sim­ple as a smile. An open heart. A lis­ten­ing ear. A real­iza­tion that to meet a new per­son is to explore a new world. 

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

The Other SideJacque­line Woodson’s beau­ti­ful pic­ture book, The Oth­er Side, illus­trat­ed by E. B. Lewis, is an exam­ple of bor­der cross­ing. The sto­ry depicts a small, seg­re­gat­ed town where black fam­i­lies and white are sep­a­rat­ed by a phys­i­cal bor­der — a fence. Clover plays with her African Amer­i­can friends on one side. Annie, with wavy red hair, lone­ly and want­i­ng to play, watch­es from the oth­er side. When Clover’s moth­er reminds her daugh­ter to stay on her side of the fence, Clover asks why. “That’s the way things have always been,” her moth­er replies. The warn­ing doesn’t keep Clover and Annie from reach­ing out to each oth­er. No one says the girls can’t sit on the fence. And when they sit next to each oth­er on the top fence rail, they see the big wide world and each oth­er. Even­tu­al­ly the girls on both sides of the fence play togeth­er, know­ing some­day some­one will “knock this ol’ fence down.”

Compassionate, Deep Listening for Adults, Too

My father used to remind me, “You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.” 

Good advice. A more pro­found quote is a Quak­er say­ing: “An ene­my is a per­son whose sto­ry we have not heard.” For me, cross­ing bor­ders means to learn to lis­ten care­ful­ly, deeply, and com­pas­sion­ate­ly to someone’s sto­ry with­out think­ing about what I may want to say in response. If we can look into each other’s eyes and lis­ten to each other’s sto­ries, some­thing breaks open in our hearts. Phys­i­cal­ly, in our bod­ies, we can feel bar­ri­ers break­ing down and empa­thy and under­stand­ing rise up.

Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson
Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor Judy Atkinson

In the list of TED talks about deep lis­ten­ing, the one that moved me the most was Judy Atkinson’s insight­ful talk about “The val­ue of deep lis­ten­ing, the abo­rig­i­nal gift to the nation.” 

Dr. Atkin­son is an Abo­rig­i­nal schol­ar who speaks to the social trau­ma in her own coun­try of Aus­tralia and the pow­er of lis­ten­ing to under­stand and heal. Dr. Atkinson’s talk asks us to cross bor­ders to the oth­er side of the world. What we find in her sto­ry could well hap­pen across our own streets, in a near­by neigh­bor­hood, with some­one sit­ting next to us. In any cul­ture and lan­guage, deep lis­ten­ing is a uni­ver­sal tool to connect.

Deep Listening Practice for Everyone

How can we help our chil­dren (and our­selves) become bor­der crossers? Start with prac­tic­ing deep lis­ten­ing. Edu­ca­tor and writer Diana Raab had a list of tips in her arti­cle pub­lished in Psy­chol­o­gy Today:Deep Lis­ten­ing in Per­son­al Rela­tion­ships.”

  • Put your­self inside the mind of the speaker.
  • Lis­ten for meaning.
  • Pay atten­tion to body lan­guage.
  • Cul­ti­vate empathy.
  • Avoid mak­ing judgments.
  • Look into oth­ers’ eyes when they’re speaking.
  • Pay atten­tion to the feel­ings asso­ci­at­ed with the words.
  • Notice the speaker’s tone and inflection.
  • Repeat in your own words what some­one has told you.
  • Acknowl­edge that you’re lis­ten­ing by nod­ding or say­ing “Uh-huh.”
  • Occa­sion­al­ly sum­ma­rize oth­ers’ com­ments when giv­en the chance.

By lis­ten­ing care­ful­ly when some­one speaks, we’re telling them that we care about what they’re say­ing. It’s also impor­tant to remem­ber that lis­ten­ing is con­ta­gious. When we lis­ten to oth­ers, then chances are they will be more inclined to lis­ten to us.” writes Raab with more good advice.

No mat­ter how young or old, if we prac­tice deep, com­pas­sion­ate lis­ten­ing, we’ll find the courage to cross bor­ders into one another’s world. As in the pic­ture book, The Oth­er Side, we might even watch those ol’ fences come tum­bling down. 


For each Peace-olo­gy post, Caren and Ellie part­ner to learn and explore the mean­ing of peace by talk­ing and lis­ten­ing with each oth­er. If you’d like to share your ideas about peace, books, and chil­dren, please share your com­ments here, or vis­it our websites.

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David LaRochelle
3 years ago

Thank you for this post. I love what you said about “cross­ing bor­ders,” and how that can hap­pen by sim­ply lis­ten­ing. I will take this essay to heart and put it into practice.

April Halprin Wayland
3 years ago

One of my favorite books. So easy to share in adult writ­ing class­es. Wood­son does a per­fect job of show­ing, rather than telling.

And, as David said above, your writ­ing affect­ed me deeply. I will remem­ber that all I need to com­mu­ni­cate in a for­eign land is a smile.