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"You will be the first one whose throat they cut!"

Boy! If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that one!

Okay, I’m exaggerating, but I did get that one in an email a few years back, and milder versions of it from people who think that if I speak out against powerful people who I think are in the wrong and my "side" prevails, my former allies will reveal themselves as totalitarians who will turn on me. The funniest version of this sentiment that I have heard is, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God first!"

While I tend to dismiss these discouraging words as the defensive routines of those who feel that they will always benefit from the status quo, there is something to their cautions. How often do we see people replace one tyrant with another? In her excellent book, Things I’ve Been Silent About, memoirist Azar Nafisi talks about — among other things — her life in Iran during the successful revolution against the Shah. In one section there is a tragic list of the people we have come to know in her story who took to the streets against despotism only to disappear or be executed soon after the Ayatollah’s new regime came to power.

It is the old story of the revolutionary who hates the man on the balcony while aspiring to be the next man on the balcony. We see now the incomplete transfer of power in Egypt, with a military willing to unleash violence against the people who they handled more peaceably while the old ruler fell. The conventional wisdom of the talking heads seems to be that a vacuum is created when a government falls, and that something must rush in to fill it.

The solution to this puzzle is not to wait and hope for the best. Nor, it seems, is it wise to push for the destruction of the old without having something new ready to take its place. Having the new ready in advance may not be appealing to those who are driven to tear down the old. It requires a different set of muscles and a focus beyond acting upon the current frustration.

What if the next time people gather in a square or camp in a park they use the down time between confrontations and press events (both an important part of the process) to have conversations with as many people possible about what comes next. Instead of yelling across the barricades that things must change, what would happen if 1,000 people calmly asked the police officer or the soldier or the news reporter closest to them what he or she would like to see be different in the world?

As Martin Buber said, talking to others isn’t a question of skill. We all know how. It is a question of willingness.

I like this from Margaret Wheatley’s Turning to One Another:

Ask "What’s possible?" not "What’s wrong?" Keep asking…
…Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.

What do you think of this reliance on human goodness? What do you think we could be like as peacemakers if we learned to have effective conversations with those we were striving with? Comments always welcome…


Bill Withers

Bill Withers is a mediator and mediator educator who has written books for mediator educators and for people who find themselves in conflict at work. His most recent book is the second edition of Resolving Conflicts on the Job (AMACOM).  He has also written The Conflict Management Skills Workshop and (with Keami D. Lewis) The Conflict and… MORE >

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