Listening and Empathy

Frank Dukes

Director, Institute for Environmental Negotiation, University of Virginia

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Is there a particular experience in your work that has touched or inspired you?

A: I think there are a lot of them. I'll tell you a couple very short anecdotes. One is when I have been asked to facilitate a meeting around a landfill that had substantial community opposition. The authority that was managing the land fill needed a plan for what they will be doing with those cells as they close them down: are they going to cover them up, or are they going to use them as soccer fields? What would be an appropriate use for this land? I contacted some of the people that were opponents to the landfill to say, "Here's what I've been asked to help with, and the reason they asked me was because of this conflict between the landfill and the neighbors." I say, "Does it make sense and is this going to be something that you're going to be interested in?"

I remember someone who called me back on a Friday night and I really didn't want to talk after a long week, and take time away from my family, but I also remember saying that if this is something that he really wants to do then I'll do it. I basically spent about an hour listening to what his concerns were, and what he thought was happening due to the leakage from the landfill coming into what he thought was his land, and killing his cattle and making them sick and so forth. After an hour, I said, "It must be really hard for you." That was extremely moving for this individual, and he said, "You're the first person who's ever listened to me." He'd been fighting the country, city and county for about two years. He'd been to many public hearings, he'd contacted many different people and I'm sure that people had listened to him, but not in the same way, not without judgment, not trying to understand. That was an example of the power of listening and understanding, and it was another example to me of why it's important for me to make time to do that, because I almost said, no, I can't talk to you now.