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Language to open hearts and minds

The war within

by Bonnie Tinker

Cecil Prescod and I offer a workshop called Opening Hearts and Minds. We named the workshop in 1993, before the U.S. Military declared that the intent of the Iraq war was to “win hearts and minds.” The Defense Science Board, a federal advisory committee established to provide independent advice to the secretary of defense used the phrase in a September 2004 report. The report said “the war of ideas,” or the struggle for hearts and minds — is important to every war effort.” With reference to the Iraq war, the report goes on to say: “American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended.” I’m not surprised. In our culture of dominance, even our speech is militarized, but hearts and minds cannot be won through a war of bombs, or a war of words. You may be able to force someone to change their behavior, or their statements, through threats and violence, but you can’t really make anybody change their heart or mind about anything. That’s something people have to do for themselves. A German protest song from the 16th century peasant wars declares: “De Gedanken sind Frei” (thoughts are free). The Third Reich banned the song, but that did not change its truth. No war can bind or change our thoughts. Of course, this also means that we can’t make people change their minds on some very important issues. We can’t force people to believe that discrimination is wrong, that the planet needs our protection, that marriage rights are human rights, that war is not the answer. But we can use words in a way that creates the possibility of change by unilaterally disarming our own speech. Hearts and minds change in that order — first hearts and then minds. They don’t change unless they are open, and you can’t do it for anybody else. We can only create the conditions for change by opening our own hearts and minds. That is the key to speaking the language of peace. Ghandi says that the essence of non-violent action is to give the message of Ahimsa, “I will not harm you.” He also says that to engage non-violently we must overcome the impulse of fear to either fight or flee.In the heat of debates about the 1992 anti-gay ballot measure 9, I discovered that through the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and Quaker dialogs about same sex marriage, I had learned principles of verbal non-violence. The Portland PFLAG chapter asked me to tell them how I approached responding to intense homophobia when speaking in public, and in response I outlined this simple method


Listen behind the words until you can hear how a person of principle could possibly hold the view being expressed. Listen until your heart understands how what they are saying connects to something you believe to be true. Don’t say anything until you have heard this. Affirm, with the first words out of your mouth, that you share some principle or value with this person. Don’t talk about the shared belief, but demonstrate it by using an “I” statement. Respond with a direct answer to the concern expressed. By not dodging the question or issue, you show that you respect the other person, and you show that you are not afraid of their opinion. Add some fact, or better yet, something from your personal experience, that gives some new information, or a different point of view. Repeat this process for as long as you are willing and able to engage with an open heart and clear mind. I can’t claim that I use this method every time I am hurt, or angry about injustice, but I can say that I have seen amazing changes using this kind of dialog with a great variety of situations and issues. Using the LARA method is not so much an accomplishment as it is a practice.

Peace is a process.

Bonnie Tinker and Cecil Prescod offer the Opening Hearts and Minds LARA workshops through Love Makes a Family, Inc. The next workshop will be held in two sessions on May 17 and 24 at Multnomah Monthly Meeting. Contact info (at) or 503-228-3892 for more information.


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Last Updated: April 8, 2006