PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Setting the Tone: Communication in Conflict by peaceprobe
November 11, 2008, 1:52 pm
Filed under: Christian Peacemaker Teams, Connecting Across Borders, Iraq, Nonviolence

The tone we set in peacemaking is everything.  Without an approach of curiosity, candour, and honesty we can be assured that progress will stop.  In a peacemaking conversation there is always more to communicate than the content of the contentious issue.  The tiny symbols of timing, dress, place and body language all make a difference and may open or close doors.  Appropriate gift giving may be a critical part of this language in some cultures.  This is true in the global tangle of conflicts but it is also true at the community and institutional levels.  

Listening takes into account deeper nuanced messages that are closer to the heart.  This path of interested, curious,  listening comes about when we trust the preconscious and semi conscious levels of our lives.  We can assume other peoples have found their own ways to be at home with those inner messages.  Peacemaking, sometimes called diplomacy, is possible when there is a road.  Roads are built between us by adventures of nonverbal and verbal communication over a longer period of time.  Nations do this on a grand scale, the rest of us do it one on one.  

During a trip to Iraq I joined a CPT team member in a visit to a family in a hard to find neighbourhood on the outskirts of Baghdad.  The family had contacted our team some weeks earlier because one of their sons had disappeared early in the occupation, and they were desperate to find him.  The taxi driver who took us was hesitant because he was not familiar with the community. Nevertheless, we set out on our search.  

After an hour’s drive we reached the neighbourhood where we repeatedly asked for more specific directions.  People were cautious.  After many turns on deteriorating side roads we finally reached the street where local people pointed us to the house.  The family invited us in and recalled their request for help and inquired about our work.  The discussion seemed stalled for a time as tea was served.  Suddenly the man of the house announced that the son had been released three weeks earlier.  We were relieved but there seemed to be a continuing pall over the room as more tea arrived.  Then we asked if the son was available so that he could tell us his story.  They said someone would go find him.  We waited.  

Suddenly the former detainee burst into the room.  He began shouting at us.  In his shouts he appealed to a situation in Egypt where people like him are mistreated and the Americans support the government.  His voice was loud and animated. We listened in confused silence.  After a time we asked if he could tell us about his recent detention and what transpired.  He replied with another diatribe on how awful things were, then paced back and forth in the room as his elders tried to quiet him down.  A third time he lashed out at us whereupon his parents prevailed upon a relative to take him from the room. They told us that he had been inclined to these kinds of emotional responses since his release.  He was not like that before, they said.  

After a few more polite exchanges we left and then began the task of decoding the contrasting tones of our exchange.  Had the former detainee been severely mistreated or even shamed and was his behaviour, as suggested by the parents, the result of traumatic interrogation?  Or was he communicating a rising anger and bitterness of one Baghdad community in the early stages of occupation?  In dozens of meetings with Middle East families I had only once encountered an outburst like this.  In Middle East society this kind of behaviour is rare in early get acquainted meetings.  However expressions of anger may occur later as a part of a larger process of negotiations.  

On reflection later I believe that the son’s behaviour probably reflected all of the above and more.  The fact that the family presented the son to us after a time of ambivalence suggests that they thought it would be safe for them if we met the son despite the unsettling nature of what was to come.  The son’s message included revenge, fear, and hatred.  My mistaken inclination at the time was to simply see his diatribes as the expression of anger over detainment.  I was wrong.  Although he may have carried conscious and subconscious pain, that pain had a real source in the unfolding events and deserved an interpretation by me that reached beyond the psychological.  I failed to read the loud tones, and preferred to confine my interpretation of events to polite Middle Eastern coffee and tea hospitality.  Had I listened more deeply I could have anticipated the enormous outbreak of violence and revenge in communities like his in the coming two years.  

In real listening we don’t necessarily learn so much that is new.  Actually we simply recognize much of what we already know.  The catch is that we all have highly-developed systems of sorting, judging and eliminating information  that either doesn’t fit or makes us uncomfortable.  We train ourselves to do that.  By listening more deeply to outbursts, to body language and the choice of words we get hints that can move peacemaking along because we know where to get started with warnings, activism and interpretation.  In real listening my impatience, prejudice, and need to analyse is overcome.  I let the messenger’s total communication affect me.  

In my experience I know when I have listened because my energy becomes more animated with a sense of connection to the person and the larger context.  Compassion and concern are awakened. I am allowed at least for a moment to hear not just words but the intent of the person and this gives me a sense of connection to the person and also to the universal.  I know that the analytical have its place and will come later.  In the moment of connection my whole bodies including all five senses are listening.  

Over the years I have had many opportunities to introduce learning tour participants and leaders to difficult situations where justice was broken and people were angry.  I joined my colleagues from the West often with our trusty notebooks where I would jot down words and names that were spoken, copiously attempting to keep a perfect record only to discover later that my notes failed miserably to capture the power of the exchange that I remembered.  Only rarely did our local colleagues have notebooks but often I found their memory of the encounter more reliable.  Eventually I learned that my notebook was a filter that I mistakenly hoped could catch the truth.  

We live in a time when the fabric of the community of nations could be thoroughly tested.  We are tempted to rush in with analyses that lead to solutions of threat and force especially when we have power.  When we do that we may get lucky for a time.  But our luck will inevitably run out and no amount of power or threat will force the peace. 

We can set a different tone by listening deeply from the heart.  The time has come to bring compassionate listening to fragile relationships from the community level to the palaces of the world.

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