From Interests to Interest

by Glen

It all was rather bizarre. Attending the peace talks between north and south Sudan in a nice hotel outside of Nairobi promised to be a challenge. It had been Africa’s longest running civil war, with millions killed and even more displaced. But the point was that people were tired of it – all the killing, the lost generation, the poverty, the hopelessness.

Wisely, the Kenyan mediator had opted for three rounds of meetings spread out over a couple of years. The first round was just as I described in yesterday’s post: anger, fierce positioning, recriminations, blame, and inflexibility. Yet behind it all was a growing understanding that the nation itself couldn’t survive in its present state. Nevertheless, there had to be venting and ideological speeches.

The suspicions effectively expressed, the leaders of north and south then entered into that second important phase of development in progressive dialogue – the moving from interests to interest. Despite all their protestations and issues, there was that one clear recognizable reality behind it all – without peace, nothing was possible. Eventually, that goal began to emerge out from all the other points of debate until it began to frame much of what came after. To our amazement, Jane and I watched as the two sides began breaking off into twos and threes over coffee in some secluded shady spots. We could tell something was happening – not significant, but a lessening of animosities that had been exacerbated because of the earlier speeches. They went from being foes to seekers of that larger goal.

Without a larger purpose, what’s the use of dialogue anyway? It’s not the same as general talking, the kind you overhear in coffee shops everyday. It’s there to find common ground for a reason. Yet all too often we’re more concerned with our points of view instead of the overall reason we are communicating in the first place.

If we are to get someplace with these kind of conversations, then we must be careful not to blow up the bridge through our passionate rhetoric in the earliest stages. As Dale Carnegie used to note: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” In arenas of age-old animosities, like in that Kenyan hotel, this is a given and must be permitted to work itself through a process.

Citizen engagement often doesn’t carry such dire consequences of failure, but it’s still relative: people judge from the situations they are in, not someone else’s. They hold their positions sincerely and seriously, and yet they wouldn’t be in the room if they didn’t recognize that there is a better place to get to that’s farther along than where they are at present. Their community’s future will require such efforts by dedicated people, no matter how opinionated they are.

For our community conversations to have meaning they must be more flexible than firm, be more tolerant than talkative, and pragmatic more than positioned. The people who accomplish this best are not necessarily the smartest or most eloquent, but those possessing dispositions conducive to friendliness and encouragement. In fact, the smartest ones are often the most distressing and jarring in their conversations. They forget that those they are trying to best actually come from emotional places that are important to them and must be respected before any advancement towards compromise can be made.

In the most effective process of dialogue, the ardent debater begins to learn the early skills of an adroit diplomat, and that distinction is essential in citizen engagement. Good citizens practice empathy over emphasis. The ability to listen is obviously essential, but first must come the understanding that the other person is coming from someplace meaningful to them. For whatever reason, they have chosen this place to plant their flag and it’s important that we acknowledge that reality before we can get anywhere.  Should we wish to pick a fight at the outset, it’s not the rationale that will be rejected but the lack of respect for their belief system. Or as Carl Buechner once stated in a speech to professional negotiators, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Without realizing it, the citizen that develops empathetic instincts actually becomes the bridge on which two positions can meet, effectively becoming a change agent just through the very ability to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. It’s a remarkable gift in short supply in many situations.  For all intents and purposes, that person uses silence while others resort to talk. Without such silence there is often nothing but noisy opinions and protestations. It is the ability to refrain that eventually produces the opportunity for understanding.

John Kennedy once told a group of politicians: “If we are strong in our care for others, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.” In other words, if you can’t get outside of yourself and make time for the ultimate “interest” over your own “interests,” then the conversation is already over. We require serious citizens, aware that the ultimate reason why dialogue is necessary is, at all times, more important than the dialogue itself. The Sudanese, to their credit, learned that skill over a couple of years. But for us it will all depend on whether we possess pliable natures, not rigid arguments.