JUNE 2015
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A Tool for Compassionate Listening
by Linda Conroy
When I was introduced to the wise woman tradition, I was curious about he tenant of compassionate listening.  I appreciated the sentiment, but was not entirely sure how to practice it. I was clear on where the focus needed to lie. I knew that listening to myself, the plants, nature and others was the goal, yet I was not sure how to actualize this. Being conditioned in a culture that emphasizes talking, much more than listening, I was challenged to find ways to truly hear the call of life.

As over two decades have passed, since my introduction to the wise woman tradition and to the invitation to listen more deeply, my experience of deep listening has evolved. I have increased my awareness of compassionate listening and find that this supports me as a human being on this planet, as well as a community herbalist. Listening to the plants, to my community and to myself has proven over and over to promote deep healing and nourishment.  Along my path, I have found several tools that have assisted me in listening. Listening is a tangible expression and skill I employ in my daily life.

One of the tools that has assisted me is a model of compassionate communication developed by Marshal Rosenberg. I was introduced to this model while participating in a residential herbal/wise woman apprenticeship program. When I began learning this model, I immediately felt like I had found home. This model seems simple yet as I dance in the spiral that is my life and incorporate the tools of listening and self-empathy, I continually discover insights and new aspects of life that contribute to all my relations.  As part of the apprenticeship program that I now offer we learn and practice this model as we explore herbal wisdom and wise woman ways. Compassionate communication offers an intention that facilitates connecting deeply with the self, the green world as well as other people. The primary intention is a consciousness that facilitates connection to life in every given moment. 

The aspect of this model that I encourage the women who study with me to focus on is that of self empathy or compassionate listening to themselves first and foremost.  I have found that the ability to closely listen to oneself, leads to compassionate listening to the natural world as well as other people. In these changing times I predict that there would be a radical shift if we each simply focused on self-empathy and listening closely to ourselves. Much of what happens in our daily interactions starts with how we have learned to relate to ourselves.

The main goal of nonviolent communication is connection: whether we are talking about ourselves, nature or other people. This is contrary to the goal of the communication many of us have learned. Many of us have learned to blame ourselves, blame others or disconnect from nature as a way to distract from our feelings and needs. The basis of compassionate communication is to focus on feelings and needs.  Identifying our true feelings is a large part of this journey and one that requires patience and diligence. Because many of us are not even sure what our feelings and needs are, it takes commitment and a willingness to be uncomfortable at times.

In the case of self-empathy we can notice an internal dialogue and any self-effacing messages. Life for example the weeks when I forget to take my trash out and the can is full, I tell myself how stupid I am to have forgotten once again. I can easily go down this road and continue giving myself a hard time. Of course this only leads to me feeling depressed every time I think about the trash.

Now I can turn this around using compassionate communication. I do this by changing my internal dialogue to one that focuses on my feelings and needs. I use the self-effacing message as a red glad that I am not listening closely enough. As I listen more closely, I might say to myself: "I'm feeling disappointed that I forgot to take the trash out and my need for ease in the upcoming week is not met." Here I can realize what my needs are, need for ease, and I can get my need met some other way. On one occasion when I forgot to take the trash out, I asked my neighbor if I could put a bag of trash in their can that week and they agreed. 

Through this interaction I discovered that I could be creative and reduce my waste as well. Reducing my waste helps me to meet my need to contribute to the health of planet.  If I had kept beating myself up, I probably would have had an overflowing trash can and would not have embraced the opportunity to connect with my neighbor and to unfold a deeper need to contribute in other ways.  This is one simple example of many that have led me to deepen my relationship with myself, the plants, other people and the earth.

Compassionate communication offers opportunities to cultivate relationships with others as well as ourselves that are life enhancing. The model developed by Marshall Rosenberg first invites us to make an observation that is judgment free: so in the case of my trash, I would say to myself, I notice that I forgot to take out the trash. Then I would notice what feelings came up: I felt disappointed and frustrated. Next I would identify the need: I want ease in my upcoming week, particularly in dealing with the waste that will accumulate. After I have offered myself empathy and/or understanding. I can choose whether an action is needed or if receiving understanding was the action. In the case of the trash I chose to make a request, which is the 4th part of compassionate communication (*the request is critical when dialoguing with others). I requested of myself that I ask for space in my neighbor's trash can and that I conserve and try to create less waste. These things both brought life to the situation and turned it into something fun.

Compassionate communication has offered me opportunities like these to enjoy my own life more fully as well as to enjoy connecting with others. At times when things do not seem resolvable and I feel hopeless, sticking to my feelings and needs has lead to connections that I could not have imagined. This is resonate with the goal of the Wise Woman Tradition, which holds health in the form of unimaginable transformations.  Taking the four steps identified above and applying them to interactions that occur in my daily life have revealed pearls in situations that seemed impossible.

This model can also be used to promote health. Compassionately listening to our bodies and asking the wise woman questions of how can I be open to unimaginable transformations is a powerful way of saying how can I get my needs met. Many times our wise bodies can offer keen insights.

Below is the four part model that was described in this article. Have fun and play with these questions in your life, see if you can find a few hidden treasures.

Make an observation (without judgment,if there is judgement try to transform it into curiosity)

Identify your feelings connected to the observation

Identify your needs connected to the feeling

Make a request of yourself or others (check to be sure you are making a request and not a demand)

 For more information about nonviolent communication visit http://www.cnvc.org/


Linda Conroy is a bioregional, wise woman herbalist, educator,wildcrafter, permaculturist and an advocate for women's health.

She is the proprietress of Moonwise Herbs and the founder of Wild Eats: a movement to encourage people and communities to incorporate whole and wild food into their daily lives. She is passionate about women's health and has been working with women for over 20 years in a wide variety of settings.

Linda is a student of nonviolent communication and she has a masters degree in Social Work as well as Law and Social Policy. Linda has been offering hands on herbal programs and food education classes for well over a decade.

She has completed two herbal apprenticeship programs, one of which was with Susun Weed at the Wise Woman Center and she has a certificate in Permaculture Design.

Linda is a curious woman whose primary teachers are the plants; they never cease to instill a sense of awe and amazement.

Her poetic friend Julene Tripp Weaver, eloquently describes Linda when she writes, "She listens to the bees, takes tips from the moon, and follows her heart."

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