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Creating Circles of Listening in a Parish
by Father Robert Schreiter, CPPS

One of the things that many people are looking for is a way to implement concretely some of the principles of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. Specifically, how does one create those ongoing discussions which seek to find common ground and develop a perspective on legitimate differences?

This has been a concern of the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago since the Center’s inception in 1997. The purpose of the Center is to carry forward the legacy of the late Cardinal in the areas which were of special interest to him. The Catholic Common Ground Initiative has been one of those areas.

Recently, the Center has begun some programming in a closely related area to the Initiative, namely, reconciliation. The Cardinal’s reconciliation with his accuser, Stephen Cook, is well known. But in many other ways and at other times, the Cardinal undertook the work of reconciliation. The Catholic Common Ground Initiative can be seen as a natural extension of his concerns.

One of the reconciliation practices which have become important in the work of the Cardinal Bernardin Center is the “healing circle.” This is a way of providing a place of safety and hospitality for people who are seeking reconciliation and the healing of their wounds. These healing circles have proven to be effective ways of ordinary people coming together to hear one another’s stories, and to seek out how God is leading them to a new place.

The path to reconciliation has many qualities similar to seeking common ground. Both require establishing ground rules for communication. Both cultivate a discipline of listening. And both need a spirituality which gives a wider meaning to what is being undertaken. Both reconciliation and seeking common ground are more than psychological exercises: we undertake reconciliation and seek common ground out of a larger vision of who we are as Church and how we seek healing from God.

What follows here is a way of establishing what might be called “circles of listening.” These circles can be formed in parish communities and other settings as a place where people can learn to understand one another better and to seek ways of dealing with legitimate difference. It is presented here in four parts. The first part talks about what the circles are: places of safety for the participants to speak their minds without being disparaged or dismissed. The second part shows how that is done concretely: the ground rules for communication. The third part extends this into the discipline of listening. The fourth and final part takes up the spirituality or vision that makes this possible.

Circles of Safety and Hospitality

Circles of listening begin as places of safety, where people can trust one another and be trusted. A breakdown of communication can be caused by many things, but it is certainly fuelled by various forms of disconnection: we doubt the other person’s intelligence, or integrity, or good will. We may psychologize their point of view (i.e., think that if they were only more healthful mentally, they wouldn’t hold to that position). We may even feel that they have betrayed something important. All of these instances cause us to disconnect with the other person.

A circle of safety means that, in virtue of our common baptism into Christ, we are committed to the well-being of all of those in the circle. We acknowledge that we do not understand why or how some people hold the positions they do, but we are committed to hearing their stories so as to understand better their views. At the deepest level, we extend them trust—we suspend our doubts about their motives, and see in them people trying to travel the path of truth. Without this level of trust, communication is not possible.

Second, the circle of safety must also become a circle of hospitality. That is, we do not accept one another only grudgingly, but as brothers and sisters in Christ. We acknowledge that we are all sinners and imperfect, but also are seeking to be faithful disciples of the Lord. The root of the word “disciple” is “to learn.” We are committed to learning from one another.

An important thing to know about hospitality is that a gesture of welcome is only effective if the one to whom it is extended experiences it as a welcome. In other words, the welcome must be on the terms of the one whom we are welcoming, not solely on the terms of the welcomer. To experience genuine welcome is very similar to an experience of God’s welcome—what we ordinarily call “grace.” As believers, we try to create that atmosphere where God’s grace can be experienced.

Circles of safety and hospitality, then, are the foundations for circles of listening. To understand how they work, we turn now to the ground rules for communication.

Ground Rules for Communication

Circles of listening have two major characteristics: they should be small, and they should be ongoing. Ordinarily, they should not exceed six or seven persons. A group of this size allows opportunity for all to speak. Care should be taken in constituting the groups so that one way of thinking does not dominate; otherwise, those in the minority position will feel they have no chance.

Second, those who come together should make a commitment to be a continuing circle. Initially, that means that they agree to come to at least two sessions. This means that they must give the circle at least two chances to get on the right track.

In creating circles of healing, it has been very helpful to develop a written covenant among the participants. This is a very simple statement to which all involved agree. It involves a level of confidentiality (and confidence) which is necessary for trust. This means not talking about the contents of a session to anyone outside the circle, nor with individual members of the circle outside of a session. It also involves a commitment to follow the ground rules about not interrupting or criticizing others in our responses. Members of the circle sign the covenant as part of their commitment to the process, and to one another. Such could be helpful for circles of listening as well.

How the circle is led can be decided upon by the participants. Leading involves keeping the ground rules before the participants so as to insure the quality of the dialogue. The leader also insures that everyone has an opportunity to speak. One person can serve as ongoing convener, or it can be rotated. There should be an agreement also about when the sessions begin and how long each session is to run.

How the discussions are framed is essential to the success of a circle of listening. In discussing a controversial issue, the point is not to create a rush to judgment (although all will come to a judgment in the end). Rather the issue should be phrased in such a way that it does not foreclose the matter, but rather opens up a space where the issue can be explored in all its concreteness. That means hearing the stories of how people have come to hold the positions they do on the issue, what is important to them in their maintaining that position, and how they see that as faithful discipleship. It also means seeing an issue as something in itself, not merely as emblematic of some bigger battles. (For example, disagreements about the conduct of the liturgy are often emblematic of much larger battles going on.)

The most important ground rule for a circle of listening is already in the name: listening. That entails, first of all, not interrupting anyone who is speaking. The only interruption that may happen is a gentle reminder from the convener that the speaker has departed from the ground rules (such as going into a tirade or attacking other members of the group by impugning their motives or morals). The reminder should be made in such a way as not to break the trust. More about the discipline of listening comes in the next part.

Other important aspects of listening, besides not interrupting, include how to respond to what has been said. The first response is to ask questions which may help clarify what was said. Responses that move quickly to judgment or evaluation of the position always are to be avoided, since they erode the trust. This is especially the case when judgments are based upon inadequate information and misunderstandings. They always come last in a conversation, and then are framed by statements such as: “I need more help in understanding what you are saying, and in seeing why you think that way. To me, it looks as though it should be (fill in the blank here). Help me to see better your point of view.”

Basic to communication in circles of listening is trying to see someone’s position from his or her point of view, rather than translating it into one’s own. That must be done in a hospitable way that shows the questioner accepts the honesty and integrity of the other person, and wants to understand it.

A good way to establish that level of trust is to devote the first session to each participant’s telling a little of their journey of being Catholic. This should include what have been great challenges or crises for them, and how they have endeavored to be faithful to God’s call. Stories provide depth and texture to our positions, and help us see the human struggle in more detail. Getting to know the context of positions people take is important to understanding them.

Only when we have tried as best we can to understand others’ positions from their perspectives should we turn to a third perspective (i.e., one beyond the others’ and our own). That third perspective is that of norms in any of their forms: Scripture, Church teaching, and tradition. Here the purpose is not to engage in conviction and acquittal, but to see how all in the circle are called into a deeper faithfulness. Having tried to understand one another’s perspectives and experience help us see the richness of the texture of discipleship—how we all need to learn, how we all need to respond.

If circles of listening begin with concerns about trust, they end by creating deeper connections: connections or bonds of trust among the participants, closer bonds to Christ in discipleship, renewed bonds with the whole Body of Christ.

The Discipline of Listening

Listening is much more difficult than it first appears to be. In seeking common ground, it becomes clear that listening is a discipline, that is, it is a patterned response that must be attended to and worked at.

It is, first of all, a patterned response in that it has attitudes and behaviors which are part of it. It begins with an attitude of respect for the speaker. That means taking the speaker as a person of honesty and integrity, who is a genuine seeker after truth and who strives to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Again, being a disciple means that we are always learning. To prejudge the speaker means that we will filter out everything a speaker says which does not conform to our pre-formed view of the speaker.

Patterned responses also entail ways of acting. The first thing we do in listening is to still our own inner monologue. We endeavor to hear the speaker, not engage in an internal dialogue with the speaker or to provide a running commentary. This is much harder to do than is often realized. But it is essential for genuine listening. The second thing we do in listening is forestall our own “hot buttons”—those things the speaker might say that send us into our own orbit. We have a responsibility to know what these are, and try to deactivate them while listening.

A good way to still the inner monologue and to deactivate those buttons is to begin the session with some time of contemplative silence. In that silence we try to be as much as possible in the presence of God, waiting for God to speak. It involves our own inner voice falling silent. It involves attending to our own wounds (for these are often the origins of our “hot buttons”—events which have wounded us along the way). The posture we assume in contemplative prayer, waiting for God to speak, is the posture we need to assume with one another in a circle of listening.

Listening takes a special kind of mindfulness and attention. This is the “attending to” needed in a circle of listening. It also takes practice, “working at.” Without this mindfulness and attention, what we hear is not another person speaking, but rather a springboard for our response. That is why attending to the ground rules of how an issue is phrased, of allowing everyone to speak, of not interrupting someone speaking, and asking questions of clarification instead of making indirect acts of judgment are so important. It also keeps open the space which makes the quest for common ground possible.

A Spirituality of Circles of Listening

Circles of listening must be more than a rhetorical exercise or a therapeutic activity if they are to succeed. Important for people seeking common ground in Catholic faith is having a spirituality to ground the practices of listening.

In the healing circles of reconciliation, the stories of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection have helped fulfill that need for a spiritual basis for our action. An aspect of those stories can help build circles of listening within a parish context.

The stories of Jesus’ appearing to his disciples after his resurrection can be seen as Jesus’ creating a space for them to unfold their thoughts, emotions, fears, and hopes. In the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ identity is hidden from the two troubled disciples as he allows them to tell their story of a disappointed hope. After they have had the space to tell their story, he reveals himself to them.

In the story of Thomas, Jesus shows Thomas that he too has wounds. In the story of Simon Peter and the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus first cares for the needs of the disciples (he cooks them breakfast!) and then gently leads Simon Peter through a process of healing his three denials of Jesus after Jesus’ arrest. Indeed, one can go back to the healing stories earlier in the Gospels and see something of the same dynamic at work. In those stories Jesus engages in a dialogue with those who approach him. He creates a special space for them in which the healing then can take place.

What happens in the circles of listening is like that. These circles are the creating of a space where people can speak of things which are deeply important to them without fear of derision or dismissal. They can come to understand why others take a different view of the matter, also out of a commitment to integrity, honesty, and discipleship. This may not lead to them changing their minds, but it does allow for an appreciation of why some people can see things so differently.

In creating these circles of listening, we mirror an approach Jesus took in his own ministry of creating new spaces where healing could happen, new perspectives could be gained, and new bonds could be forged. We model a way of acting which hopes to be similar to how God’s grace comes into our lives—as gift, as opportunity, as promise of new life. If we keep this larger view in mind as we gather to seek common ground, our circles of listening can indeed be circles of safety (where trust is honored) and hospitality (where graciousness is experienced). Our mode of listening will create the space for ideas to be unfolded and new connections to be made. And beneath and between our differences we will be able to perceive that common ground which we seek, in our common faith.

In a speech on tolerance in the church given in Sydney, Australia, Cardinal Bernardin characterized tolerance as acknowledging legitimate difference within the church in the context of commitment to the basic truths of the church. Such commitment, he said,

rules out petty criticisms and jealousy, cynicism, sound-bite theology, unhistorical assertions, flippant dismissals. It rules out a narrow appeal to our individual or contemporary experience as if no other were valid. . . .Where there is a breakdown of civility, dialogue, trust, and tolerance, we must strive to build the unity of the one body of Christ.

It is that formula of tolerance which underlies true circles of listening in a search for a common ground.

Robert Schreiter, CPPS, teaches at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He was the founding director of the Cardinal Bernardin Center and is active in reconciliation work internationally.