Listening Hearts

This blog entry is to introduce a new page I am starting where I will be sharing my experiences of working with empathy and non-violent communication (geweldloze communicatie in Dutch/Nederlands) – also known as compassionate communication and also giraffe language. I am very passionate about the role language and communication plays in harming or healing our hearts. Whether it be in our relationships as parent, child, friend, lover, partner, siblings, adult, employee, with authority figures or those we fear or feel threatened by. The experience below happened to me a day after 70% of the `UK population voted whether Britain should leave or remain in the EU. The ‘leave’ votes won by a tiny margin of 2%. There is a growing concern about the rise of right-wing xenophobic sentiment and politics spreading across Europe.

Coming to terms with the outcome of the vote and witnessing the referendum campaigns, my heart is troubled. I ask myself ‘well what can I do to create value and stem further negativity and hatred amongst people i meet?’ As a practitioner of the NVC process and a Buddhist following the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, I’ve decided that I will try to meet any opportunities I have to talk with someone whose views differ from mine with heart-to-heart dialogue. I believe peace can be established when we as fellow human beings recognise and touch the humanity in each others hearts. I believe empathy is a ‘muscle’ we can strengthen to enable us to do that.

Before I share todays experience I wish to say that I do not by any means consider myself an expert in empathy, NVC or as a Buddhist. I am very much a work-in-progress, a student of life, working hard with each encounter to build a world of peace, starting with the person infront of me. This is the encounter i had today and how i managed to deal with it:

Tango by the Lake

At an outside social event in a picturesque part of the Dutch countryside, I was pleasantly having a conversation with someone i’d never met previously and before I realised it i found myself listening to sexist and racist comments. I kept my cool, making calm measured responses to what this (white, cis-male, 50+ years old) person said. I responded in a calm, quiet and measured way when he spoke about the inconvenience of having to hold meetings in a public space because of women refusing to attend meetings held in his house because ‘they’re always afraid of being raped’.
I applied my NVC approach of listening carefully then guessing his feelings and needs under each statement and asked him if he felt judged because he has a need for trust and to assure his guests that he is not a threat to them? He did not respond, so I said “Do you recognise the importance for women to feel safe when meeting with other strangers?” He said ‘So I always have to hold my meetings in a public space then?’ I replied by sharing the example of my need for safety being based on taking the best possible care for myself and that rape is used far too often to judge women negatively for their need for safety. I told him the threat of rape is real and not to be mocked.
Changing the subject he then moved on to chat with me about Brexit and tell me that there is a strong feeling amongst most Dutch people who also want to also leave EU because, he explains to me, of the “22 million Muslims waiting at the gates of Europe”. I asked him if he felt unsafe and threatened by people arriving from other countries to make a safe home here? He responded in a voice that felt bigger to me, by asking me if I knew that “there were no-go areas for non-Muslims in Amsterdam and The Hague?… Muslims go around on scooters clubbing people across the head with big sticks?” At this point I’m suppressing the need in myself to release my South London ‘fuck-you’ aggression in full force.
I took a deep breath and said to him I felt that judging the reason for peoples violent behaviour based on their skin colour and possible religion is Islamaphobic and racist. I said the people on scooters sound like very afraid and angry people to me, just like the white English non-Muslim who killed the UK MP Jo Cox last week. I asked him: “Are you feeling afraid because you hear these stories and need to feel safe in your own country?” He told me (in a voice that I received as angry and aggressive) that he’s not against Islam and its got nothing to do with racism. At this point my alarm bells went off. I felt unsafe hearing his words and I knew my next response to that would unleash the full force of my anger.
Instead I timed out by telling him (still calm and measured) I need the conversation with him about this subject to stop now because I am in strong disagreement with him, even though I hear his concerns for his personal safety, I feel offended and I choose not to engage in a heated political debate at a social event I came to enjoy. I said “I will not continue talking to you about these subjects. I’m happy to talk about something else” (me: deep breath, calm voice, forced smile). He paused and then began to tell me another story about ‘Muslim violence’ and saying that we need to agree to disagree blah blah.
At this point I was unable to hear his words. I stopped him mid-sentence and said ‘Did you not hear my ‘No’ earlier? I will say it again and then walk away from you so you know I mean it when I say i will not continue speaking to you about these subjects. No’ (another forced smile, this time firmly holding my hand up between him and myself).
As i said my final ‘no’ he walked away from me.
I took several deep breaths and continued at the social event, keeping calm and relaxed but still very unsettled. The man steered well clear from me for the rest of my time there and when I said goodbye to the group, I glanced in his direction and saw him (by coincidence maybe?) turn his head directly away from me as others bade me farewell. I judged that as a sign that I touched his heart, but it felt too uncomfortable for him. Sometimes learning, growth can feel uncomfortable. I also felt some discomfort in myself and on reflection accepted that there are things I too can learn from this exchange.
I hope that I nudged this person’s empathy muscle and planted a tiny seed of awareness that others in his life will water and enable his heart to warm to his own feelings, needs and the feelings and needs of those less privileged than him.
I’m sharing this because despite me slipping into judgement and defensiveness (jackal language), I did two things I wish to celebrate:
  1. I did what I told myself I felt is important to do, which is engage in dialogue with people whose views/politics differ to mine with the hope to touch their hearts in some way that they reconsider the fears that drive divisive ‘jackal‘ views like xenophobia.
  2. I did this, realising my limit, AND called time-out instead of getting embroiled in a heated no-win argument that’s so easy to do with someone whose beliefs differ from yours.
Next time I have such an experience I hope to have exercised my empathy muscles enough to stay in the ‘fire’ a little longer.
Bloody hell this heart-to-heart dialogue is fucking HARD WORK!!! 😅

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