On Deep Listening

It has been several months since the opposition in Hong Kong swept the board in the District Council elections. The level of violence associated with the protest movement that began more than six months ago has much reduced. However, this may be just a lull before the storm, as the basic problems have not been solved. In fact, there is little sign that they are even being seriously addressed. And there remains a great deal of anger, mistrust and hatred on all sides. This political division and social split will likely linger for years, perhaps decades, to come, all the way up to 2047.

Perhaps one optimistic note in recent months has been the setting up of Forward Alliance, a “neutral” organisation who describe themselves as “a group of independent Hong Kong individuals from different walks of life and of different beliefs but bound together by a common desire and commitment to contribute towards constructive change”. They say they are committed to promoting dialogue as a step towards finding “broadly acceptable solutions” to conflicts.  On 16th November, Forward Alliance organised a day-long conference, during which a range of invited international speakers shared their experiences and their expertise in conflict resolution in places as diverse as Northern Ireland, South Africa, Lebanon, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. Local speakers also shared their perspectives and experiences. This led to some discussion of possible ways forward to solving the current crisis in Hong Kong. The conference was well attended. In fact by the time a got around to trying to register it was already full.  However it was streamed live on Facebook.

One clear message that came through during the conference was that whatever happens from now on, healing the bitter divisions that we now have in Hong Kong will take a lot of time and a lot of commitment. Another message was that although there is much that can be learned from experiences of conflict resolution overseas, there is no template that can be taken and simply applied wholesale to the Hong Kong situation.

In her closing remarks at the conference, Christine Loh (陸恭蕙), one of the organisers of the event, emphasised the importance of attentive or respectful listening (聆聽), which had been a major theme throughout the conference. Without some ability in and commitment to attentive listening, there is little point in trying to set up “dialogues”.  As she put it, “even if we don’t agree with what they are saying, people desire at least to be heard and understood. If we can get to a stage when we can do that, then we have an opportunity to start a real dialogue”. However, attentive listening is not a skill that comes naturally to most people (certainly not to me). Rather it has to be consciously developed by individuals and applied in their everyday lives, not just in political contexts. “If we ourselves cannot practise the things that we think society as a whole needs, how are we going to get other people to practise them?”, Christine Loh said.

I know some Buddhist teachers similarly talk about the importance of “deep listening” or “compassionate listening”. A recent google search led me to a YouTube video of a useful talk on the subject that Thich Nhat Hanh once gave during a retreat. In the talk, he locates deep listening as part of the fourth mindfulness training (see also Buddhistdoor 10/4/13) and says that it is possible to develop the skill with just two or three weeks of diligent training, combined with mindful breathing, walking and sitting. It requires learning to listen with compassion, “allowing ourselves to be empty without any prejudices or preconceived ideas” and giving the other person a chance to express him or herself, without judging or arguing. “Even if the person says thing that are unjust, full of wrong perceptions, full of judgements, you can still listen, you are not affected. Whatever is said, just allow it to be heard”. He recommends that if you notice irritation coming up, you should stop, explain to the other person you do not feel well enough to continue and go to practice walking meditation or mindful breathing and sitting, resuming only when you are certain you can listen with compassion.

Clearly, we are not in the short term (or probably even in the long term) going to see Hong Kong filled with people having a high level of competence in such deep listening. But we can perhaps hope for a small number of people with real expertise who can come forward to play a role in creating the conditions for dialogue to begin. We can perhaps also hope that increasing numbers of people from both pro and anti government  “camps” can learn to start listening to what their opponents are saying without closing their ears, screaming abuse or attacking people.

It seems to me that Buddhist teachers and practitioners in Hong Kong ought to be able to make positive contributions in this area. However, as far as I am aware (and it is quite possible that I have missed something) Hong Kong Buddhist groups have not been noticeable in coming forward to offer anything positive during this troubled period. There were in fact suggestions back in 2014 during the Umbrella Movement about what Buddhists might do, for example be present to physically protect belligerents from one another or to hold meditation “flash mobs” (see Buddhistdoor 24/10/14) but as far as I know such suggestions have not been taken up. More recently in September of last year, the International Network of Engaged Buddhist issued a statement in which they stated that they would seek through their networks to end the violence on both sides of the conflict, and urged Buddhist monasteries and groups in Hong Kong to provide humanitarian assistance beyond political positions. Again, I don’t know whether this has led to anything.

In the long term what we of course really need is some kind of cultural change. An important part of this has to come within the educational system. I can’t claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of what goes on in Hong Kong’s schools and universities, but from what I have observed and to some extent been involved in, language education in Hong Kong seldom or never includes training in anything like listening non-judgementally to what other people are really saying.  Rather the emphasis is usually either on simply listening for information, or on listening in order to find flaws in a speaker’s arguments that can help in constructing counter arguments.

Elsewhere, there are educationalists who have tried to develop ways of fostering deep listening in their teaching (see for example, “How to Foster Deep Listening” by Kersti Tyson, Allison Hintz and Kellie Hernandez, and Deep Listening Activities for Academic Discussions” by Amy Heusterberg-Richards) Hopefully, educators in Hong Kong can also find ways to foster such skills in students at all levels of the education system. In the meantime, perhaps all we can do is to work on becoming better listeners ourselves and to encourage Buddhists and any others who have been trained in deep listening to come forward and try to find ways to help heal our community.

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