The Art of Listening – une œuvre abstraite


When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new. – Dalai Lama

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I love the traditional Chinese character for listening. If you break it down, you will see elements of ears, eyes, undivided attention, and heart.

I have listened to countless stories of families decimated by the Khmer Rouge during the years of 1975-1979. I have heard innumerable slurs, degrading remarks, and generalised judgments about certain ethnic groups residing in Cambodia. I have seen vitriol commentary hurled back and forth aimed at both sides of the political spectrum that wields its power in Phnom Penh. I have participated in many meetings expressing the voices of indigenous communities torn off their land and forced to survive on nothing in Cambodia’s northeast. I have sat with garment workers whose colleagues were shot in front of them for protesting for a small pay raise. Listening is so overwhelming.

One one hand, Cambodia holds a positive and bright enthusiasm – full of motivated youth plowing forward to leave the past behind. On the other, a perennial dark and macabre fascination that draws in visitors to wander in war and genocide museums or go sightseeing in the killing fields where the remains of victims literally lay on the ground in front of them. My own thoughts, opinions, insights, and reflections on Cambodia have deeply transformed over the last three and a half years as a resident. Having initially come to Cambodia to work on governance reform, I spent much of my first year aghast over wide spread corruption, dysfunctional bureaucracy, a complete lack of public services, and an ongoing narrative of international development gone wrong. Later work taking me to conflict zones in Myanmar helped to reframe some of my own perceptions of Cambodia where I continue to hang around. How does a country move past a massive genocide that results in the death of one quarter of its population? How do a people who have witnessed unimaginable atrocities ever come to smile again? Cambodia is, and continues to be, a land of perpetual juxtapositions.

IMG_2704.jpgI’ve never seen myself as anything but an outsider in Cambodia – but a recent trip with a group of inspiring peacebuilders from abroad gave me the chance to feel a tiny bit more of an insider. Anlong Veng was the highlight of my own learning process and my longstanding, but evolving, perception on Cambodian reconciliation. Anlong Veng is a small district in Cambodia’s north bordering Thailand. It is known as the last vestige of the Khmer Rouge leadership where soldiers took possession in rebellion to a new central government right up until 1999. Every conflict includes “the other.” When the losing party of a conflict becomes “the other,” the power reframes the narrative to the convenience of the people affected. How do you speak to the perpetrator? By giving space to the perpetrator, are you empowering a voice that should be muzzled rather than raised? We spoke directly to former members of the Khmer Rouge, one of history’s most visceral enemies, a committer of some of the most atrocious acts on humankind. A woman seemingly full of grief, presumably repenting acts of the past, emotionally tells her story with tears that soak into the wooden planks of the floor. Everyone stops and listens intently. Nobody dares to ask a difficult question. For many, her communication reflects remorse, but are we sure? More tears fall to the floor  amongst our bewildered group. We end politely and move on. Listening is so painful.

IMG_2763.jpgIn front of Pol Pot’s cremation site, an armless man lacks the skills to present his own narrative to the curious group of scholars. He instead instructs us to simply ask what we hope to understand. Persisting questions dive into his rationale and perceptions of Pol Pot as a human. His consistent answers show continued sympathy and possible admiration for the ruthless dictator who slaughtered three million presumably innocent civilians. Rage, disgust, horrified inquisition, and absolute judgment permeate the gravesite that shows a small makeshift effort by someone or some group to preserve the most basic elements of a site for the deceased. There is a divide in the group. On one side, there are those that take this commentary for what it is and listen and learn a narrative that may not be easy to digest. On the other side, there are those who cannot listen for one more minute and can no longer entertain this sick and perverse narrative that borders on glorifying one of history’s most evil murderers. Listening is so hard.

What is the role of a peacebuilder? How can we achieve equality and justice without those who defend human rights for the less heard and vulnerable? But how do you begin a dialogue if you are not willing to engage “the other”? One strategy employs a “conquering of the mind” tactic that sees right and wrong in absolute clarity. The other sacrifices moral judgment for starting at a place of understanding and potentially looking towards negotiation over the long term. Can either one claim to strive for peace over the other? Can either achieve its goals without the existence of the other? Listening is so complex.

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One thought on “The Art of Listening – une œuvre abstraite

  1. The art of listening… might be one of the most difficult to master.
    There are so many of these stories that need to be told and listened to. One thing I’ve learned from my experiences in South Sudan, Cambodia and now in Rwanda is that most (not all!) people want to tell their stories if you are willing to listen. It actually helps them to tell it and it helps them in the reconciliation process, to find peace for and with themselves. Sometimes the fact that you are an outsider makes it easier for them to tell their story, but it always makes me realise how lucky and priviledged I have been, growing up in peace and safety. I find many of these stories really hard to listen to, and even more so when told by people I’ve known for a while. Yet, it might be one of the most important things we can do.

    Good luck with developing this art further and I’m sure you will remain a dedicated peacebuilder!


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