By Emily Kasriel
Editor, BBC Crossing Divides

Image caption,

Hawraa (left) took part in a project for Lebanese citizens which encouraged people with conflicting views to listen to each other

"If a Muslim woman who wore the veil decided to unveil, I used to consider that she is a bad person and didn't deserve to be my friend. If I met her, I would bully her," says Hawraa Ibrahim Ghandour, a Lebanese Muslim.

She says her views were shaped by growing up in a very religious family. Her father preferred her to make friends with people who were similar to her, and she says she took those values with her into adulthood and her work as an English teacher at secondary school.

She is one of 150 people in Lebanon who took part in a deep listening project, run by the British Council in partnership with the BBC. The aim was to learn skills of empathy, silence and suspending judgement. And a year on, Hawraa has been reflecting on how it helped open up her mind.

"I learned to listen more, not to judge but to try and understand, and to give time for the others to communicate the messages that they wanted to. Then to give feedback to check that I really understand what they want me to know."

What she sees now as her previous fanaticism and intolerance were extended to anyone who was different.

"I used to be against Syrian refugees in Lebanon," she says."I used to think of Syrians here as not taking care of their hygiene and not living a proper Lebanese life."

Image caption,

Hawraa works one afternoon a week at a school for Syrian refugees

However, today she works on Tuesday afternoons at a school for Syrian refugees, despite the stunned reaction from her family. Every morning, Hawraa catches up with Mayada, a refugee nurse from Syria, while she drinks her morning coffee. They first met when Mayada was caring for Hawraa's mother, and now the two women are often in each other's homes.

Hawraa says her new relationships have helped her become more tolerant. "In the past, maybe I did not communicate effectively with those people, or maybe I was just listening to the media which plays a role in stigmatising people. If we listen to each other, we find we have many commonalities - human feelings that we share."

However, Hawraa's friendship with Mayada doesn't prevent Hawraa from having serious hesitations about some aspects of Mayada's culture. Mayada's son is about to marry a woman who is only 16, which is not uncommon in the Syrian refugee community. "I do accept that this is their choice," Hawraa says thoughtfully. "With deep listening you understand that this person is not your enemy, even if they are behaving differently."

To celebrate 100 years of the BBC, in May the BBC World Service and the British Council will be running a virtual deep listening training programme for 1,000 young people in 100 countries.

If you would like to learn listening skills and practice with others from across the globe, you can find out more here.

Mohammad, a humanitarian worker from Lebanon, was aware that he wasn't a strong listener, and that this got in the way of negotiations, a critical part of his job. "I was that person who would always interrupt, the person who would always know what you are trying to tell me," he says. "That's when I jumped in with assumptions, and then tried to validate them. Assumptions can be killers."

Not long after the training, Mohammad took a job in Mosul in Iraq, working with local authorities, NGOs and UN agencies to create a plan to manage the city's displaced people. To succeed in his new role, Mohammad had to reconcile many different parties with a host of conflicting ideas.

"Should we send displaced people home? Should we try and integrated them in the city where they are? Will they accept living in a neighbourhood with people from a different tribe?" he says.

Image source, Reuters

Image caption,

Mohammad uses his listening skills in his job helping displaced people in Mosul in Iraq

Mohammad vividly remembers the briefing he received before he started work. As his colleague described the role and its requirements, he started to feel there was background information that he would need but that wasn't being shared.

"Believe me, in the humanitarian sector, you need to understand the personalities of everyone involved in order to co-ordinate effectively. Who is an enabler, who is a spoiler and who is a blocker."

At that moment, Mohammad remembered the listening training and the importance of giving someone space after they finished speaking, both as a sign of respect and to allow them to share more. After his colleague had finished speaking, he waited for a full 20 seconds.

"In those 20 seconds I was able to gain a bit of trust and bond with her," he says. "After that space our relationship somehow changed, and she shared with me her real experiences and her perception of the key characters I would need to work with."

Three months on, Mohammad credits this as empowering him to understand how the city works and make huge progress with the plans for a co-ordinated response.

How deep listening works

  • Ask your speaker to explain their perspective and why they feel so strongly. Listen, without interruption, putting aside judgements, counter-arguments and solutions
  • Summarise the core of what you have heard and check you have understood correctly, including the emotions and texture of their story. This does not mean you have to agree
  • Ask whether they agree with your summary. If not, ask them to explain more
  • Continue with this process till the speaker gives a resounding "Yes." They should at this point be likely to listen to your side of the story

There are times, however, when Mohammad tries very hard not to use his newly acquired listening skills.

"In the aid sector, if you get really good, and are in a personal conversation, you take yourself to a very deep emotional level that you may not be prepared for," he says.

Mohammad tells me about a conversation with a taxi driver who shared with him his experience of being whipped 18 times for the crime of driving a woman without a male companion, which was forbidden when the city was under the control of the so-called Islamic State.

"There is a dark side to the deep listening," Mohammad explains thoughtfully. "I know that at this time, it is not safe for me to have these conversations. I need to be able to detach myself from others' experience and suffering. Personally, I am not yet ready to master that emotional side."

Meanwhile for Hawraa, how does she reconcile her new beliefs with her upbringing and her father's values? Her father died a few years ago, but every Thursday Hawraa visits his grave. "I feel he can see me from the sky, and I am satisfied that he is happy and proud," she says.

"The more we know people, the less we are afraid of them. The less we are prejudiced about them. Maybe he has discovered that all people are the same in their humanity."