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September 13, 2021

A Simple Tip for More Compassionate Listening

In this week’s Systems Change Newsletter…

  • Catalytic Thinking Exercise: Are you really listening with compassion?
  • Resources to Further Your Practice

Catalytic Thinking Exercise: Are you really listening with compassion?

Infinite gratitude for all things past
Infinite service to all things present
Infinite responsibility for all things future

In this series, we’ve been focusing on three factors at the core of Catalytic Thinking - gratitude, service, and responsibility. In this journal, we asked what it means to be of service. Today we’ll break “service” down into two components: compassion and wisdom. Let's start with compassion.

Serving through the lens of compassion is about seeking to understand how another person is experiencing life, turning feelings of empathy into effective action.

Compassion is not about being nice. On the contrary, compassion can be firm, defiant, powerful. It can be about intervening to stop someone from causing harm to themselves or to others. Compassion simply determines what is in our hearts when we take those actions. We can simultaneously hate the behavior and love the person, much as we do when we intervene to help a family member who is addicted to drugs or otherwise causing harm.

Remember the old parable about the man with unruly children on a city bus? A passenger finally demands, “Could you tell your children to sit quietly!?” to which the father replies, “I’m sorry. We just left the hospital where their mother just died…”

Understanding what those children are experiencing can instantly change how we feel about their behaviors. That understanding can then guide whatever actions we choose to take

When service to others comes from that understanding, we create space for people to create their own solutions. You can see why this is a big part of Catalytic Thinking! Without that understanding, we are more likely to carry an "I know what's best for you" attitude into our actions

Sadly, many social change efforts come from the latter worldview, imposing outsiders' judgments and shoulds on small communities and even whole countries. How much social change planning happens in that very way - a small group of insiders determining what will be best for their communities, without even asking community members what they want or need?

So this week, let's focus on being of service by first understanding what people are feeling, what scares them, what they aspire to, what is important to them. That understanding will be the through line, the driving force for systems change aimed at our true human potential.

Try this
The first and most important step in serving with compassion is listening. Listening without giving advice or telling someone what you think they should do. Listening that invites that person to share what they are experiencing, so that we can simply understand.

Perhaps your child has come to you with a problem. Or perhaps your spouse is upset. Maybe you are talking with a community member about their needs and aspirations.

Listening from a place of compassion begins by stepping out of expert mode and listening simply to understand.

It could be as simple as nodding, or saying “wow” or “uh-huh” or “oh my.”

If you feel the urge to give advice or to jump in with your own story, remember our favorite watchword W.A.I.T. which stands for "Why am I talking?"

If you absolutely cannot resist the urge to speak, practice using a question to instead understand more deeply.

  • Can you talk me through that last part? I want to be sure I understand.
  • Please walk me through your thinking on that. I'm not sure I'm seeing it yet.
  • I wish I was in your head and could see the whole story as you do. Could you help me fill in the blanks?

These are the kinds of questions that let someone know you care and want to understand. These questions are especially important when you are walking into a situation where two parties are at odds. Sometimes we get so involved in the story we forget to step back, seeking to understand how each of those parties is experiencing life.

An IMPORTANT thing to remember:
Bluster and bravado are ways we humans protect ourselves from the things that scare us.

The most angry or brash among us are often the people who are the most afraid - people with whom it is even more important to understand what is at the heart of those fears.

Being of service through the lens of compassion, we begin to expand our collective possibilities. You can see why serving with compassion is built into every step of the Catalytic Thinking framework!

Resources to Support Your Practice:

  • READ: This piece by Heather Plett about Holding Space – being present and just listening - has been required reading in our classes. Easy steps you can take right now…
  • WATCH: In this TED talk, attorney and law professor Rhonda Magee talks about the inner work of racial justice. Watch it here
  • LISTEN: This 29 minute podcast interview is filled with uplifting examples, listening to find common ground in issues advocacy. Listen here…
  • READ: This interview with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is rich with examples of listening without judgment, often in surprising circumstances. Read more here…

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Creating the Future's Mission
Teach people how to change the systems they find themselves in,
to create a future different from our past -
all by changing the questions they ask.

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