Looking and listening

Into the light.  Original painting by Lynne Cameron

Into the light. Original painting by Lynne Cameron

Looking, listening, hearing the other’s story, reaching for empathic understanding – giving attention in the form of “patient and just discernment and exploration” (Iris Murdoch). This practice is essential for a poetic life, and for a good human life.

I came across a profound example in my research into reconciliation and empathy, As part of the work, I carefully transcribed hours of conversation between people who had been engaged in conflict and violence.

In these dialogues, I saw the beneficial impact of giving attention to the other, of ‘hearing the other’s story’ as the participants themselves described it. It’s not easy to turn away from one’s own suffering for a while, and fully attend to someone who may have hurt or killed your loved ones. It takes a lot of courage.

And, I came to see, it takes courage on both sides – it’s not easy to speak of violent things you may have done in the strong light of that attention, and to listen with attention to the pain you caused.

I saw in these conversations how the giving of such attention through listening and exploring meanings can change people, and can produce what I called ‘empathic understanding’.

Empathic understanding accepts that we are somehow always imprisoned in our own self, seeing only through our own eyes, and yet holds that it is worth trying to understand another person from inside, attending to how it feels to be that person in their world, their history, their situation.

To read more about empathic understanding and our projects, click on the picture below to go to the Open University webpage.

To read more about the conversations, go the website of Building Bridges for Peace set up by the amazing Jo Berry, whose father was killed in the Brighton bombing and who exemplified for me what it means to attend through listening to the other’s story. I wrote about the conversations between Jo Berry and Patrick Magee in my book Metaphor and Reconciliation.