Sarah Pirtle and the Discovery Center

Peace Chaplaincy

As an educational consultant, I receive requests to help assist groups gain new understanding and listen more closely as they make decisions together. In this article written for the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine, I describe one of the modalities I use; I’d like to make this method available for others to try.


How do you assist a group or house of worship, a committee, or a whole congregation to address a situation from a sacred dimension?

Classically problem-solving and conflict resolution can be distilled into these stages. 

1. Agree to talk.
2. Each person involved says: what is the problem?
    How do I feel? What do I need?
3. Brainstorm solutions.
4. Check for agreement and make a shared plan.

The image of River Listening is that you are seeking the place where the shared river has one voice. River Listening follows these basic stages but does so with a spiritual depth and context. Here are seven steps.

In preparation, a neutral person is designated as the facilitator, the River Listener. This can be a person who is empowered to act neutrally and not from their other social roles. They lead the group through the process.

Step One: A large circle is formed that includes all people who are affected so that they can be listening together.

It’s everyone who is feeling the heat of this. The invitation can go out widely–come to the circle. Or, specific people can be invited.

There is a recognition that this event needs to be handled in a sacred manner because it represents a turning point for the group.

Establishing the River Listener Role: If a person such as a faculty member were leading this, in a clear way at this stage they would say, “You know me in my role as ____. During this process, I put aside this particular role so that I can hold something bigger. I will be neutral, not speaking for myself, but holding the group.

If at anytime my actions don’t feel neutral, I ask you to speak up immediately because I want to do this with the greatest integrity. I will be helping us to follow the steps, but I myself will not give input into the process.”
Thus the neutral facilitator is established. Or you could select a person from outside the group who is trusted.

Step Two: The group enters sacred time together.

They are looking for the shared bigger voice. Whatever helps go into a sacred space is involved, such as the way the room is arranged, and the use of a shell for talking object.

All people are invited to help create a shared prayer. Its crucial that this be and feel genuine and not a manipulation. Truly go into the wider perspective together of the shared river.

This first prayer is of general intention of clarity, creative solution making, and heartfelt seeking.

Step Three: The River Listener asks–what are our shared goals?

For instance, a goal might be, “We have a difference of opinion in how new members are being welcomed.”

Step Four: Let’s hear all the voices of the river. 

Here we are seeking the layers of the conflict. Perhaps opinions have been informally voiced for weeks, but now they are voiced out in the open, and heard in a sacred manner.

One person holds the shell and speaks.

This is followed by another person in the circle, perhaps who specifically holds a different viewpoint repeating back what they heard, paraphrasing, empathizing, recognizing.

Back and forth in ceremonial fashion–a voice speaks and is echoed and received.

After each person speaks, the neutral leader holds that shell, and simply asks the group, “Who will receive those words?” In other words she/he is asking, “Who will paraphrase?”

If the one who is echoing doesn’t capture the essence, then the speaker adjusts and reframes until they truly feel heard.

What is key is that this is listening to the strands of the problem. It’s not time for solutions yet. The leader makes it clear to everyone what is happening and if someone starts to bring in solutions, urges them to wait.

Make it clear from the beginning that the facilitator is empowered to add and even interrupt if necessary to hold the process in integrity. They don’t have to be holding the shell to speak.

This continues until all the voices are heard who wish to speak. It doesn’t mean literally everyone has to speak unless they wish.

If there is one person who has remained silent and it is already known they have a definite opinion, the facilitator hands them the shell and expresses how important it is that they bring their voice into the ceremony. In other words, it won’t be real if they withhold their voice.

Step Five: Let’s listen together for the place where the river has one voice.

Who would like to speak what they hear?

In other words, what are creative ways to combine the larger needs and intentions? This is the stage of brainstorm.

The solutions are on many levels–specific actions we can do, but also here’s the attitudes we can hold, here’s the meaning we make of this.

Step Six: This is the stage of looking for agreement and making a clear plan, perhaps multifaceted.

During this stage the facilitator repeats proposed plans so that they are clear and acknowledged.

Sometimes the next speakers will build upon ideas and weave several together. It’s a stage of creativity.

If the facilitator has a flash of insight that will help the group, she/he  needs to speak their own insight not only with clarity but with permission on putting aside their role for a moment in service of the group– e.g. I sense a way these two ideas could be combined. Do I have permission from the group to leave my role and describe it? Or does someone else see a way to combine them?

Leaving the role has to be done sparingly and could only happen once within a whole River Listening. The facilitator can speak but is not attached to whether their plan is accepted; they contribute in this manner once, and then go right back to neutrality. It has to be done cleanly.

Keep working until someone expresses a plan that everyone can live with, that truly carries the deep intentions. These plans might have several strands because they have to combine the needs of everyone present.

The facilitator clarifies where the group is. She/he points to the person who has made a plan. “Let’s test for agreement.
Do these words express the place where our river has one voice?”

If only one person is in disagreement, name this. And ask that person if they can set their concern aside having spoken or if they want to block. They need to take responsiblity for where they are placing themselves. The facilitator makes this clear. “It looks like in this circle that you carry a unique voice at this moment. Do you wish to block the way that the rest of the river is moving?”

When a shared voiced plan is articulated and there is consensus: celebrate! We’ve found the place where the river has one voice.

Step Seven: Here is the closing of the River Listening. As a whole group take time to acknowledge and appreciate the way people have been listening.

Close with prayers, spoken thanks, handshakes, hugs, whatever means feels genuine at the moment.

Have a clear ending together. The facilitator voices: We now open the space. The River Listening is complete.