War. A large majority of people would prefer to live without it, yet it’s all around us. Countries fight other countries, or they fight themselves in bitter civil wars. Spouses and siblings square off against one another and neighbors cannot see eye to eye. It seems that war will always be with us.
For Mary Ann Callahan, who spent nine years in Afghanistan working on humanitarian projects under the aegis of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the lessons learned there could make a significant contribution toward mitigating the effects of war in all its forms. By opening real lines of communication, many conflicts can be stopped before they start.
It’s a simple, yet profound concept. If conflicting parties could begin to understand one another, a large percentage of the violence and misfortune in the world that comes with war could be avoided, or at least lessened.
“As human beings, we’re naturally very conversant with our own points of view. Most of us do not hesitate to expound on them whenever possible. What we often lack is the ability to listen to and understand the viewpoints of others, especially if they come from people who are very different from us.” says Callahan, author of “Clouded Hopes”, the second in a series about her experiences overseas that also includes “Clear Differences: Short Stories from Afghanistan.”
“The failure of mutual understanding because of missed chances for real communication accounts for a large percentage of human conflict,” says Callahan, who lived independently in Afghan neighborhoods from 2003 to 2011, when she was forced to move behind international barricades because of increasing threats to foreigners in Afghanistan.
“When I think about the various failings in Afghanistan, America’s longest war, it’s clear to me that the inability to understand differences in culture and unsuccessful communication account for a tragic cost in human life and treasure. They also helped to ruin a remarkable opportunity to build bridges between two very different cultures, which might have produced real peace founded upon mutual respect.”
As a journalism teacher, Callahan’s job was to communicate with Afghans who spoke a different language and had a very different world view.
She shares some of the lessons she learned:
• To really listen. A great deal of human communication is really a series of talking at rather than dialoguing with. Real dialogue is a series of questions whose answers are absorbed by the person asking the question. If done well, it usually leads to more questions and can produce the kind of understanding that can build bridges rather than bomb them.
• To promote empathy. America’s love of individuality and personal rights is one of our most cherished characteristics, but we must understand that our society, not to mention the world, is a cooperative of millions of people different from us. Empathy is a fundamental and necessary component for being able to live together. By putting ourselves in the shoes of another we gain insights into why they do what they do. Understanding that “why” can build positive relationships that lead to conflict resolution.
• Know who you’re talking to. Most people stay within a fairly closed and comfortable circle. Foreign locations, whether they are the different sections of the same country or a war-torn land like Afghanistan, can pose a real challenge. Whether the talk is between a Northern Yankee and someone from the Deep South, or an American and an Afghan, understanding something about the other person can help to make communication more effective and better communication can make so many things possible, maybe even peace.
For more information about Mary Ann Callahan or her work, visit http://callahans-pen.com/.