Radical advice from an unexpected quarter

I’m sitting in the equivalent of a cave, in New York, with a view over lower Manhattan that transforms into a colourful spectacle, as the sun slips below the horizon and the light, spilling from hundreds of apartment windows and from atop the One World Trade Center, twinkles in the darkness.

Inside it’s snug and warm. Outside it’s freezing cold. So, I often pass the time reading. This week I read a short book titled Doing Sixty & Seventy by Gloria Steinem. Americans of a certain age will know who she is. For the rest of us, suffice it to say that she was the founder of Ms magazine and is an articulate activist for gender, racial and other civil inequity issues.You can find out more at www.gloriasteinem.com

On page 31 of the book, I came across this radical advice, which she had received in the 1950s from a man who had devoted his life to Gandhian tactics of direct action:

  • If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them.
  • If you hope people will change how they live, you have to know how they live.
  • If you want people to see you, you have to sit down with them eye-to-eye.

This is a reminder that we need to engage with our ‘enemies’ if we want them to become our ‘friends’. I think this is true as much for us as individuals as it is for nation states or political parties or religious groups.

 Engaging eye-to-eye
Engaging eye-to-eye

One of the great failures of our age is the us versus them mindset that appears to dominate international relations. I can only cringe when I am reminded of the ‘axis of evil’ speech of a recent US President. The long overdue normalisation of relations between the US and Cuba is slowly moving towards reality, thanks to both sides being prepared to sit down and talk to each other instead of at each other.

What could be the outcome if the warring parties in the Middle East could do the same? Or in Ukraine, or the hundreds of other places riven by conflict?

You cannot turn your enemies into your friends if you insist on labelling them terrorists and refuse to talk with them.

This advice is something we need to keep in mind when, with the best of intentions, we intervene to solve someone else’s problem, whether we are an NGO providing development aid or a friend trying to help out. Unless it’s a life or death emergency, where immediate action is required to avert the danger, it always works out better if we engage with the people we are trying to help, instead of simply imposing our solution to a problem we don’t really understand. How do you put the situation into its proper context if you don’t make the effort to find out what the real situation is?

I’m sure we can all come up with an example of how our best intentioned actions have only made the matter worse. If all of us husbands simply took the time to listen instead of going straight to solution mode, I’m sure our relationships would improve. Most times she wants you to listen to her, to see her, and understand how she feels about the situation. Guys, that means we need to practise the three steps listed above. And, it works the other way round, too.

Was that man talking to Gloria in India onto something? I think he was.

Leave a comment and let me know if you agree or not.

Thanks for dropping by, Peter