Dialogue of the Deaf

12344047151156616159bionet_human_ear.svg.medEarlier this week an op-ed piece in the New York Times caught my attention. (as well as the title of the article, which I have used above. The ear to the right is my own addition, but not my own!) It is by Mohammed Hanif, a Pakistani novelist who has written two excellent novels. His latest, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, is a moving account of a Christian nurse in Karachi who marries a Muslim wrestler and the mayhem of dark humor that ensues.

In his article last week, Hanif writes of relations between India and Pakistan, calling them the Dialogue of the Deaf. I’ll give just a couple of quotes here and you can read the whole article at  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/opinion/mohammed-hanif-india-pakistan-dialogue-of-the-deaf.html?_r=0

Hanif opens the piece with “We are at it again. India and Pakistan are talking a lot these days, mostly about why they don’t want to talk to each other. Our national security advisers were supposed to meet last week. And they were supposed to talk about terrorism. Instead, they did what they do best. They hurled accusations at each other about how the other side doesn’t really know how to talk, and the meeting was canceled.”

A great description of the “dialogue of the deaf”. This is true of course not only about Indo-Pakistani relations, but a host of others at the international level and perhaps in our own personal lives. Neither side really listens, but schedules endless meetings only to cancel them. Of course before they are canceled there is a series of things said that can include accusations of various kinds. Hanif does a brilliant job in this article of outlining a series of “he said-she said” back and forths related to how both countries see each other. Both have clear perspectives that can be defended to the death.

For example, here is just one of his paragraphs detailing the different perspectives, “India would like the world to make Pakistan stand in a corner of the classroom and again and again write on the blackboard, ‘I have been a bad boy.’ Pakistan claims the dog ate its homework, and that it is busy hunting the dog down. Pakistan wants the world to believe that it has changed. India wants the world to remember that Pakistan supported the Taliban and sheltered Osama bin Laden.”

And on and on it goes. Sound familiar in your life with situations and people where there are vastly different perspectives about the very same thing?? Hanif pierces the bubble of the idea that the answer is somehow just to get to know each better. “Pakistanis who have visited India or met a real-life Indian will tell you, ‘They are just like us.’ Indians say the same of Pakistanis. Which makes all of them sound as though they had been expecting to discover a nation of feral animals. Then again, in large parts of India and Pakistan there is no enmity and there is no love. Most people don’t even make much of the fact that the two countries are neighbors.”

The whole article is worth a read. Not only if you are interested in the important area of Indo-Pakistani relations. But also because there are way too many “dialogues of the deaf” going on all around us. A few years ago a colleague of mine said these words in a meeting I was in, “It sounds from what we are saying that we are an echo chamber for our own voices.” He was commenting on the fact that there was little outside voices coming in to a particular meeting and situation. We were only listening to ourselves, and even that not very well. Another time I was in an international meeting, and it was tense with conflict. One of our members was carrying with him a large plastic ear (whatever for I have no idea!) and suddenly as voices were raised to a high pitch, he tossed the plastic ear into the middle of the room in front of everyone!

Needless to say, having a plastic ear thrown in front a group tends to change the dynamic of the meeting! The room burst into laughter after a few moments of shocked silence. People remembered again that they needed to listen to each other, rather than just carrying on in a dialogue of the deaf.

True listening is costly and time-consuming. Not too many of us personally, or nations on the global scene, want to take the time to really listen. But it is the only way to really gain the different perspective that will work towards lasting change in relations.

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