Town’s citizens strive for harmony through better listening

Saturday January 19, 2013

ORANGE, Mass. -- Beset by financial crises and battles over school regionalization, this town of 7,839 -- well-known for its skydiving center -- is deeply committed to overcoming its political divides.

Folks here are now taking the plunge in a different way. They’re attempting to open their hearts and minds in a process of conflict resolution through listening.

It all began about a year ago, according to Karl Bittenbender, an amiable former pastor at the Lutheran Church of Orange. Three prominent people took Bittenbender to lunch. The trio consisted of Peter Cross, a one-time chairman of the Mahar Regional High School committee; Joanie Cohen-Mitchell, then chairwoman of the local elementary school committee; and Rev. Jean Thompson, then pastor of the Community Church in North Orange and the chairwoman of the Library Trustees.

"Basically," said Bittenbender, "Peter, Joanie and Jean asked a simple question at our meeting. ‘What can we do about bringing some civility back to our public discourse?’" As a result of their discussion, Bittenbender and a large group of Orange residents began a series of "peace circles" aimed simply at getting citizens to listen to each other.

"As part of the court system’s Reinventing Justice project," said Bittenbender, "I had received training in the aboriginal process of circle communication. Out of that luncheon, we agreed to hold some listening groups to see if we could encourage people to listen longer before responding to another speaker.

"In communicating, you see, we don’t have hearing problems. We have listening problems. People tend to be thinking of a response to another person’s words instead of simply listening."

Seven peacemaking circles have been held in town since November with as many as 30 participants. The circles are influenced by the nationally recognized work of Kay Pranis of Minnesota, who wrote "Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community" and "Doing Democracy with Circles." Pranis trained the aspiring peacemakers in Orange.

The circle method has its origins in Native American tradition, according to Bittenbender.

"People sit in a circle," he said. "We have a ‘talking totem,’ a pencil or a stick, that is passed around. As the totem moves around the circle, the conversation goes clockwise with all participants committed to listening. There are no interruptions and no responses to the speaker. When the person has finished talking, he or she passes the totem to the left and a new speaker begins.

"The process may appear innocuous but it can be quite powerful. When you have committed to listening to me, I don’t have to try to get your attention to listen to me. Therefore, what I say can come from a deeper, truer, more resonant place. And I experience the freeing experience of being listened to. As a result, I feel very good because someone is listening to me."

Another key principle of the circle is confidentiality. What goes on at a circle, "stays there," explained Bittenbender. All the group must consent in order for ideas or feelings to be taken out of the circle.

"This allows you a lot of latitude," said Karl, "to speak in honesty and peace, knowing that what you say is respected, honored and kept secret."

In the first seven Orange circles, successive "passes" around the ring have addressed questions such as "What do I love about Orange?"; "What are my concerns about the current state of affairs in the town?"; "What do I hope for the town of Orange in the future and how can I help to make that happen?"

The public is encouraged to attend the peace circle scheduled Thursday, Jan. 24, on the third floor of the Orange Innovation Center, at 7 p.m. A specific problem is on the agenda: "What do we need to do to improve attendance at Town Meeting?"

The public may attend all circles.

Bittenbender, who has been a sheep farmer for some 25 years, feels his role at the listening circle is not one of facilitator. Instead, he calls his function "keeper of the process. My responsibility is to observe how the circle is progressing. If you’re starting to speak from my heart, from what is dear to me, and not your heart -- then I have to reframe or redirect your remarks.

"The keeper is there to listen fully and deeply and his task is to make sure that each participant is coming across well. The more personal and vulnerable a circle member becomes, the more certainty there is that he or she needs the safety of the circle,"

At 74, Bittenbender looks years younger than his age and displays abundant charisma. He’s currently interim director of community development for the Town of Orange. An Arlington, Va., native, he earned a bachelor’s in mathematics at the University of Idaho before becoming a mine sweep officer in the United States Navy.

Kate Pranis is a national figure in the field of restorative justice. She served as the restorative justice planner for the Minnesota Department of Corrections for 10 years. Pranis has led tutorials in a diverse range of settings and contexts from prisons to churches, schools, neighborhoods, social service organizations and workplaces, ranging from small towns in Minnesota to the South Side of Chicago.

Lucinda Brown, community coordinator of the Franklin County District Court, is director of the Reinventing Justice program.

For information, call 413-772-8711.


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