Narrative Listening and the Quest for Peace
Annie Rappeport, Ph.D., M.Ed.
University of Maryland. USA
Professor Andrew D. Wolvin, Ph.D.
Honorable Director (Academic) Global Listening
Centre. Professor Emeritus at University of
Maryland, Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown
University, Law Center. USA
While story telling is receiving considerable focus in communication research, story listening should have greater attention. Situated in a narrative listening theoretical perspective, this article provides a case study of New Story Leadership, an organization that brings together delegates from Israel and Palestine to Washington D.C. each summer to share stories with each other, with U.S. congressional senators and representatives, and other D.C. organizations.
Central to human communication is the narrative, the stories that we share. Fisher (1987) identified the narrative paradigm as a major communication form. Rappaport (1995) observed that stories have a powerful effect on human behavior, creating meaning, emotion, memory, and identity. Anderson (2019) describes this power of the narrative:
Storytelling is the bedrock of civilization. From the moment we become aware of others, we demand to be told stories that allow us to make sense of the world, to inhabit the mind of someone else. . . Stories invite empathy, but only if we listen . . .
While early research on the narrative focused on story telling, the importance of story listening has received more attention today.
Narrative consultants Westmark, Offenberg and Nissen (2011) center their organizational development work on listening to the organization’s stories. “. . . people are always storying their lives,” they note, and “meaning is made and re-made, stories are created and changed all the time” (p. 34). Bavelas, Coates and Johnson (2000) explored story listening in an interactive, conversational context, identifying story listeners as co-narrators: “the narrator elicits responses from the listener and the listener’s responses affect the narrator” (p. 951). Research by Pereles, Jackson, Rosenal and Nixon (2017), analyzing the stories that patients tell, describes this co-construction: “Stories are not fixed entities with one truth. They are edited and viewed through a lens of the past, the present agenda, and expectations for the future” (p. e48).
Neuroeconomist Paul Zak’s research (2014) on the motivational impact of narratives demonstrates how the human brain is especially attracted to the enduring stories of human triumph over adversity. Research by Cohen and Wolvin (2011) identified how visualization is central to listening to stories. Trained and novice listeners alike reported that they “visualize what is happening” as they engage in narrative listening (p. 20). Dahlstrom (2014) reminds us that narratives offer increased comprehension, interest, and engagement for listeners. Reviewing the empirical research on narrative processing, he observes that it is “. . . the default mode of human thought, providing structure to reality and serving as the underlying foundation for memory.”
At the center of much of human communication, then, is the narrative. Listeners engage in communication for various purposes which consciously or unconsciously guide how we process what is communicated verbally and/or nonverbally. Wolvin and Coakely (1993) have described five basic listening goals: listening for discrimination, to distinguish sensory input; listening for comprehension, to understand; listening therapeutically, to provide emotional/social support; listening critically, to analyze the message and listening appreciatively, to gain sensory pleasure. These goals serve to frame how we interpret what we receive.
Noting that storytelling is a major means of self disclosure, Savage (1996) identifies five types of stories that listeners are likely to encounter in their communication with others:
Reinvestment stories of shifting commitments and loyalties Rehearsal stories which describe past events “I know someone who” stories to project a personal condition onto someone else Anniversary stories of the joy or pain of an event Transition stories of ending and/or moving on (p. 95)
“Story listening is not just becoming aware of the language the speaker is using,” Savage stresses, “it is also the process of observing, in detail, the body language, plus the tone of voice expressed in telling the story” (p. 77)
Further strategies for listening to stories are offered by Friedman (1993):
. . since stories unify events into a meaning structure, listeners must consider whether the events related occurred as described, are parts of a coherent whole, are connected in cause-effect patterns, are complete (or whether anything important has been omitted or added), are aptly sequenced, and are interpreted appropriately (p. 215).
Adding in the challenges of listening to stories across cultures, Brownell (2013) reminds us that cross-cultural listening requires patience, kindness, and respect. “The effective cross-cultural listener maintains an attitude of acceptance and open mindedness, listening . . . to learn and appreciate other ways of seeing the world” (p. 353).
Arguing that narrative engagement is central to peacebuilding, Roig (2019) stresses that “. . . peacebuilders have a special calling to engage with narratives in a way that is selfreflective, curious, seeks complexity and constructs meaning with others” (p. 5). Focusing on making meaning together through narratives, she observes, “. . . builds a common understanding that peace is possible, and that individuals can play a part in achieving and sustaining peace” (p. 12). It requires listening to our own and our partner’s narrative assumptions and language in order to “. . . break down our own bubbles of meaning to co-construct new narratives for peace with others” (p. 17).
Clearly, achieving and sustaining global peace depends on global listening. Luc Reychler (2001) identifies listening as an important element in ending violent conflict and peacebuilding. “Being listened to and listening creates the potential for positive change, especially when those that are doing the speaking and listening have previously encountered each other as negative stereotypes and enemies” (453).
A prominent example of global conflict, ironically, is religious extremism. Indeed, the post-September 11 world “… is seized with the dangers of religious extremism and conflict between religious communities” (Smock, 2006, p. 1). The Middle East is a place and space known by all three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christian and Judaic) as the “holy land” and there is an intense religious fervor throughout the area. The tensions surrounding the control of holy sites, such as the city of Jerusalem, have caused conflict after conflict by the same religious followers who all preach peace and love. The tensions continue to be palpable across these faiths whose tenets and values have more commonalities than differences. The tangled connections and intersections between historical, political and cultural conflict create a seemingly unsolvable dispute. Many attempts at peace have been attempted, but all have failed to end the fighting and hatred across faiths and ideologies.
Alongside the conflict are many people living daily lives and working towards peace. The grassroots efforts are many times rooted firmly in growing empathy and understanding through communication and education. Although the epicenter of the tensions reside in the Middle East, many people who identify with the religious and cultural communities can be found throughout the world. Their links are emotionally visceral, and their loyalties are driving the initiatives in areas geographically far removed from the region itself.
As listening has become more recognized and utilized beyond clinical settings, global peace activists have developed influential models. Buddhist activist Thich Nhat Hanh (2004) advocates “deep listening.” He brings together thirty Israelis and Palestinians each year in a retreat at Plum Village in France. The goal is for the participants to “be together, to listen to each other, and begin their own internal peace process” (p. 10). Using deep listening, the participants begin with listening to themselves in order to bring peace to themselves. And then the deep listening shifts to listening to others in order to understand their pain, fear and suffering. “We try to speak of our suffering without blaming the other side. . . Once communication is possible, peace will be the outcome” (p. 16).
New Story Leadership
A summer leadership development program, New Story Leadership (Website, 2019), pairs an Israeli and a Palestinian to live together in the Washington, D.C. area and to learn from one another. The goal is to create together new narratives that lead to new efforts for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. The conceptual framework guiding New Story Leadership is the importance and transformative power of narrative listening. Through new stories, the participants are able to pause and rethink the future, bridging the cultural and religious ideology of the Muslim and Jewish faiths.
To begin to explore how communication and education are at the core of efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, this study will examine grassroots efforts in the cosmopolitan and international capital of the United States—Washington D.C. The focus of the study will be on how these efforts at empathy and understanding center on listening.
New Story Leadership (NSL) is an organization based in Washington, D.C. Every summer, NSL brings together 15 young Israeli and Palestinian delegates to offer their perspectives on peace building. The delegates live in PalestinianIsraeli pairs with American host families in D.C. for seven weeks each summer. They are placed in Congressional offices on Capitol Hill and in other organizations. Working together in Palestinian-Israeli teams, they share project for change proposals and collaborate on join social impact projects.
The mission of NSL is to develop a community of leaders and influencers across Palestine and Israel. At the conclusion of the 2022 summer with two NSL delegates, Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin thanked the delegates for their efforts, noting that NSL is “providing a lot of hope for a breakthrough in the Middle East” (Raskin, July 26, 2022 Facebook Video).
The foundation of this community building in the Middle East is the narrative:
Stories are at the heart of each NSL program. Learning to tell your personal story in the most effective way is crucial to engaging the interest and support of your audience—whether your listeners are members of Congress, an academic community, a faith community, or the general public. Crafting your story requires not only putting in the necessary practice but also listening carefully to the stories of your teammates, so that you can learn from one another. During this process, you’ll create a new, shared story and become more comp0elling advocates for your communities.
NSL builds on a foundation of narratives that the delegates share with each other. They also spend time in Congressional offices on Capitol Hill because “their stories matter and decision makers should have access to on the ground perspectives” (NSL Website).
To illustrate the connection of New Story Leadership delegates to narrative listening, we interviewed the former NSL co-directors and some of their past participants to gain a deeper perspective on how the work of this organization centers on listening. Their observations exemplify how a concerted effort to listen can have an impact on professional and personal relationships.
Rawan Odeh, the former NSL co-director, describes how they utilize listening circles to share their stories. The delegates form a circle and only one person can speak at a time. The group uses a talking stick which is passed around in turn to each person to hold while they are telling their story. Rawan details the process:
“We have a storytelling session and we have one person sharing their story and then the second person repeats the emotions and the needs that they understood from the story. The whole point is not just to say back, ‘I heard that you went to school when you were 11.’ But, you know, ‘I felt, I understood that there was fear on your way to school.’ emotions, identifying the emotions that are related to the person’s story.”
In addition to focusing on the emotions, the group also centers on the storyteller’s needs: “at moment you were needing safety and security, or you are needing to be heard to be legitimized… We start with listening to the individual story of the other side’s experience. . . as a story of change. . . If we start to build on those stories as a collective. . . then, ultimately, together we’ll start creating new ones.”
To gain a deeper understanding of the value of stories in peace making, some former NSL participants were interviewed. Their responses provide thoughtful examples of narrative listening.
Hiba Yazbek, the Web Editor for Haartez.com, the largest Israeli English news publication, noted that narratives “. . . are a very important and under-looked tool in peace building. Narratives and stories are directly connected to human emotions. Stories have the power to reach in and persuade people with barely any effort, and have the power to draw out buried emotions and feelings. So hearing about the conflict through personal stories is far more effective than through statistics, facts and numbers, especially among people who don’t agree with your opinions and stand.”
Hiba described the role of listening in peace efforts: “Listening is one of the most important factors in narratives. For a narrative to be effective it must reach an audience, and must do so effectively. The listener is the other, just as important part, of a story. And as a storyteller you must also be a good listener. In peace efforts specifically, there are two (or more) sides, and for narrative to play a positive role in peace efforts, all sides must be receptive to each other, and the best way to be receptive is to be open, and to listen. Listening also needs open mindedness and acceptance of differences. And it also should come hand in hand with empathy.”
And she offered a detailed description of how the listening circle process worked:
Sometimes, listening can be hard, especially during heated arguments and disagreements. So I found it very helpful and sometimes necessary to put in place rules for listening. Such as an exercise we called “the listening circle”, where we went around in a circle and each spoke individually for as long as we wanted and about anything we wanted, but the rules were that only the person whose turn it is now, who would be holding a talking stick, would speak. No one was allowed to interrupt for any reason at all, and no one can even react verbally. This allowed for a safe space and forced us to fully listen, without thinking of our response or reaction to what was being said. This exercise was one of the most effective aspects of NSL. We also set up core values for our group that all related to listening, and made sure to implement them throughout the program, such as respecting each other no matter our differences, being empathetic towards one another, and not interrupting each other. Personally, I always tried to be imaginative while listening, through painting a mental image of the story being told, and living it in my head. I found that that helped me be able to sympathize more and put myself in the other’s shoes. I also tried to be fully present while someone was talking, and not be distracted by other things, and not be thinking of an answer or response or comment in my head while the other person is speaking.
Eran Nissan, an Israeli delegate, described the need to listen with empathy: “. . . Listening is a very important part in practicing empathy. The ability to listen without being judgmental. The ability to listen and being vulnerable. The ability to listen and understanding that you may disagree with the person talking to you, but you need to listen. The importance of teaching people to listen other than arguing– other than being defensive and being on guard is crucial to break down the walls of denial and suppression.”
Israeli delegate Dana Amir noted that listening with empathy is challenging: “You don’t want to listen to your enemy, you just want to survive. And it’s hard to listen to something that is completely opposite of what you believe is true. So listening is hard, because it makes you stay quiet, to continue to hear things that don’t align with what you believe as a truth, or your values or things of that sort. And that waiting period that you need to listen to until the end of the sentence of someone who says something that’s really, really hard to hear. That’s agonizing.”
Mohammad Saleh, a Palestinian delegate who now attends graduate studies in Canada with a focus on cooperative agriculture, sees tremendous value of finding common ground between Israelis and Palestinians related to issues not directly connected to dealing with the conflict. For example, focusing on the need to be good stewards of the environment and being progressive in agricultural methods. As he reflected on NSL, he remembers how listening as a skill can help in business situations as well as harder topics where there may not be consensus at the end. By providing spaces and opportunities to listen to peers’ full stories, moments of deep insight can occur. What Mohammad refers to as reaching the ‘aha moment’, “Listening is very important in mitigating the conflict, because when you listen to my story and my narrative and understand it…you have the moment of ‘aha’ …now I understand, now I get it, now I see why all of this is happening…” Mohammad valued these aha moments of discovery and insight as productive starting points towards productive dialogues.
Gilad Sevitt, an Israeli delegate, stressed that peace building requires compassion and empathy in order to understand the other viewpoint. “Listening is like the bridge to seeing the other narrative.”
As an example of this bridge, Ahmad Saleh, a Palestinian delegate, shared his NSL project. Yalla Yoga (”let’s go yoga”) brings together Palestinians and Israelis in an approachable geographic area to do two hours of yoga and then relax and converse over food. The process requires Arabic, Hebrew and English interpreters. As the participants listen to each other, the tension they feel when they first come together breaks down. Ahmad concludes that “. . . listening is really important.”
In addition to Capitol Hill experiences, NSL takes their stories to the wider Washington DC community. One such effort is a panel presentation at the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in suburban Bethesda, Maryland. The church includes the Bethesda Jewish Congregation and the Maqaame Ibrahim Islamic Center in addition to the large Presbyterian congregation. The NSL delegates have the opportunity to share their stories and to interact with members of the three congregations in an interesting, engaging Sunday afternoon listening session. Through listening, the NSL relationship with the three congregations serves to bring people of different heritages to increase understanding and respect—something very much needed in the world today.
The powerful examples of NSL show that in the midst of a violent conflict, listening is anything but passive. Listening to the stories of those you have been taught to dismiss is a powerful means of connection and diplomacy. Story listening is a powerful strategy in our quest for global peace and worthy of constant consideration and practice. Like many facets of our fast-paced and cacophonic world, much emphasis is placed on “telling” and doing so in ways that make your voice and story stand out from among infinite options. In efforts to stifle others’ stories, misunderstanding and resentment grow. Conflict of all kinds, including violent conflict, thrives in spaces where attempts to listen and understand have stopped. Reopening dialogue that centers around open and engaged listening is critical for pausing violent conflict. It is also the foundation upon which seeds of care and compassion are enabled to grow. Listening to the stories of those from different backgrounds is essential for progress towards a peace that means more than the absence of violence—a peace that allows a pluralistic world to embrace diverse and harmonious future.
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