The Courageous Listener: Bearing Our Own Discomfort

Geneva Peace Week 2020

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On 5 November 2020, Initiatives of Change Switzerland led an online workshop on the theme of listening as part of Geneva Peace Week 2020.

Listening is a powerful tool that can have powerful effects on its recipient. It is also a difficult one to master. Workshops on listening often focus on how we can become, and remain, more present to the other person. But it is also important to be present to oneself, as listening to difficult stories can lead to distress, anxiety and full-blown burn out. As peacemakers often find themselves on the listening side of the table, this workshop put the spotlight on the listener rather than the listened-to and provided some guidance on how to take care of oneself while listening to painful stories.


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About 80 participants joined the workshop. After a short presentation of Initiatives of Change by the host, Diana Damsa, from IofC Switzerland's programme Tools for Changemakers, the two trainers, Neil Oliver and Agnes Otzelberger, introduced us to the topic. ‘Being a courageous listener does not mean being ready for anything,’ said Neil. ‘Rather, it includes listening to ourselves and knowing our limits.’ Listening can impact us deeply, but few humanitarian and social workers are offered the support they need to avoid burnout.

Agnes led us in a reflection exercise to explore what it is to be a listener. We were asked to go back to a time when we learned something difficult and to recall what we were thinking and what emotions and bodily sensations we were feeling. We were then invited to share our stories in pairs and to discuss what impact listening to a difficult story had on our minds, hearts and bodies.

Neil and Agnes then opened the discussion with everyone about how it was for us to listen with curiosity and presence. They provided helpful tips on how to develop empathy and cope with other people’s suffering. Agnes explained how coming back to the body, taking deep and slow breaths and even just moving the head from side to side can help.

One participant said: ‘This workshop showed me that other people feel exactly the same as me when confronted with difficult stories. It made me relate to them strongly and reminded me how to take care of myself to avoid feeling too vulnerable and hurt by what I hear.’

Another wrote: ‘I loved how interactive the workshop was, the general mood and atmosphere. It was really heartwarming and inspirational. I learned a lot.’

The organizing team hopes to offer more workshops to support peacemakers who too often experience empathic distress and compassion fatigue.


This workshop showed me that other people feel exactly the same as me when confronted with difficult stories. It made me relate to them strongly. - Participant


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