IG’s Peace Blog

Peace and its many aspects

Understanding Each Other (I)

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it previously, but I also teach a course on Intercultural Relations, which, in our era of globalization is certainly becoming more and more important.  To probably oversimplify, there are two important elements in a conflict that have to be dealt with:  the stakes (ie what people are “fighting” about) and the nature and quality of the communication between/among them.  As all of us know. miscommunication can lead to misunderstanding and can be in itself a cause of conflict.  And, when individuals or groups are already in conflict over real stakes (land, security, justice, etc…) miscommunication can make it worse.   Add significant cultural differences between/among the participants, and you have what is a potentially explosive “mix”.

Consider:  how do you react in situations where (you learn later) there was miscommunication between you and someone else?  If at the time, one does not realize that the problem is “simply” (I put “” because this is not always so simple) a misunderstanding, there are two typical subjective reactions.  Either one begins to suspect or feel that the other person is unbalanced in some way, or one begins to feel that the other person (or group, for that matter) is engaged in some kind of malefic game (either making fun of, or manipulating you).  How many times have you, in the context of rising tension with someone said, or heard somebody say, something like “You’r not making sense” or”You’re crazy!” or “What are you playing at?”, or “Stop playing games!”, etc…

This also goes on at the national or group level.  Some decades ago, an American President characterized a prominent leader in North Africa as “flaky”.   While it is possible, that a given prominent person may indeed be “two pieces short of a full chess set” 🙂 , it is more often the case that we simply do not understand the world view of people from cultures that are quite different, or as we say in ICR, “distant” from our own.

There are many dimensions to this, and I will probably go into them in later posts.  However, what I want to emphasize today is that more and more is known about these dynamics, and with a little information and good will, the “noise” that often makes communication–and particularly communication in conflict situations–difficult and even impossibe, can be reduced or even largely eliminated.  This often involves learning to see the world as “they” do, and coming to understand that “they” are not necessarily either “crazy” or “scheming manipulators”; but rather human beings just like you trying (perhaps at times dysfunctionally) to deal with life’s vicissitudes.

IGbarb says (quoting Gregory Bateson):  “You cannot not communicate!”


March 9, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,


  1. I came across your post through StumbleUpon, and am now interested to know what your further thoughts on this subject will be. I am a literature teacher, and one of my strongest convictions is that reading (and studying) literature is a powerful tool in helping us understand each other, and that it can – if supported by other factors – help lead the way to peace. I’ve written a post on the subject; you’ll find it here.


    Comment by Siobhan Curious | March 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. Literature is a very good way “into” another culture. Some have, however, made efforts to “streamline” the learning process since it is so important for international diplomacy and commerce. There are many training courses available, and it is, in fact, a burgeoning industry.

    Comment by igbarb19 | March 9, 2010 | Reply

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