Oh mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another. —The Quaran
Cyprus is a Mediterranean island, east of Greece and south of Turkey. A popular tourist destination, the island has the warmest climate in the Mediterranean. I landed at Larnaca, the third largest city. It was 1992.
I had been invited to work with a team of facilitators to convene a dialogue on the protection of core human rights in the Middle East. It was hot that day, 28C when I arrived. I was drenched in sweat the moment my feet touched the tarmac. I took it as an omen.
A "Green Line," separating the Greek and Turkish communities, has divided the island since 1974. I made my way to Lordos Beach Hotel, in the Greek Cypriot-controlled south, where the meeting was to take place.
Cyprus is everything the guidebooks said it would be. The beach, facing Lebanon approximately 200km to the east, is white sand and stretches for 25km along the coast. There are shops, restaurants, tavernas and bars in abundance. At the center of the city, amidst numerous archeological digs, stand at least six museums.
Cyprus has a long history. The island's first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, about 10,000 B.C. Over the millennia, the Hittites, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Rashiduns, Umayyads, Lusignans, Venetians, Ottomans, Greeks, Turks and English have occupied the island.
The goddess Aphrodite, the Greek deity of love and beauty, rose here from the sea. How ironic, I thought, that the cradle of love and beauty was chosen to host talks on the abolition of torture and the protection of basic human rights!
Actually, Cyprus had been chosen because it was viewed as aneutral site. What I understood as a neutral site and what Middle Eastern people considered neutral were clearly two different things.
In this neutral site it was against the law for the Lebanese to be in the same room as the Israelis. The Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot participants were there too, despite the island's unresolved conflict and the fear and mistrust that had been a constant companion since the early 19th century.
The other participants came from Palestine, Israel, Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, England, Switzerland and the United States. The majority, however, were Palestinian and Israeli. Some of the participants at the conference, notably the Palestinians, had been torture victims.
There were approximately forty people, many who were experts in their respective fields: doctors, lawyers, politicians, human rights activists, and representatives of non-governmental organizations, aid agencies and the United Nations.
Leading humanitarian change in one of the most conflicted regions in the world was a seemingly impossible task. War was endemic to the region. I wondered how they managed to keep their commitment fresh in the inhospitable conditions for civil society.
I was curious, and nervous, about how the dialogue would unfold, and what contribution I could bring to its unfolding.
This was way beyond anything I had ever been involved in before. It's one thing to deal with angry people in the workplace. It's quite another to deal with people who fought daily for freedom of speech, religious tolerance, the status of women, minority rights, and an end to war, terrorism and torture. People who had fought not just with words, but also with weapons.
I tried to remember the briefing I had received from the host NGO about my role as a facilitator: "don't worry about knowing the content of the issues, just worry about moving the process forward." I must confess that this advice sounded as plausible to me as the idea that you could walk safely through a minefield by simply holding the right intention.
The Power of Story
The meetings started well, a product of good design by facilitation team leader, Susan Gretchko. An American, Susan was a master of dialogue design and facilitation. She had led two previous meetings of this group.
Rather than having participants seated by affiliation, seating was on a random basis at small round tables. Palestinians sat with Israelis, Egyptians, and Lebanese. Jews sat with Muslims and Christians. Women sat with men. All of them breaking the law in doing so.
This potent seating plan was unfamiliar to many of the participants who were used to sitting in national delegations with an official spokesperson. The table groups, though, quickly became intimate settings through story telling.
That's exactly how the meetings began, with the intimacy born of personal stories. Participants were asked to share the main events of their own personal history that had made them committed to advancing human rights. One of the woman shared about her son being killed by a bomb placed in the marketplace of her town.
The conversations began tentatively but gathered momentum. Soon the meeting room was filled with conversation. I marveled at the transformation.
As the story telling progressed, each speaker seemed to gain more confidence, more openness, from the words of the previous speaker.
As I listened to some of the stories emerging from the table groups, I heard frightening narratives of the loss of life, of family members killed in bus explosions, homes bulldozed, and personal rights and freedoms violated. I also heard stories of sacrifice, perseverance and heroism.
Something remarkable was emerging. Common ground. And, the distinct personalities and outlooks of individuals around the table began to surface. They had entered as members of warring tribes. The conversations had transformed them into people, not representatives of a people.
Where there had been guardedness there was now a more intimate, open conversation. Participants told stories of their families, work and hopes for the future. They spoke of their passionate commitment to their communities and countries. They also talked about the need for greater collaboration and cooperation to bring about a lasting peace.
The quality of listening had changed as well. Where there was suspicion there now appeared receptivity. The stories seemed to be eliciting an openness that surprised everyone. It was an auspicious beginning.
The Listening Contest
My assignment at the Larnaca conference was to facilitate a smaller group's dialogue on regional human rights education needs and opportunities. I was to help advance the group's development of a conceptual framework, goals, and implementation steps.
That all sounded good.
The meeting of the project group began. Objectives were agreed quite quickly and the dialogue was moving in the right direction.
I was advancing the meeting agenda and recording the salient points and agreements on a flipchart. Suddenly, progress stopped.
Two of the participants were moving from dialogue to heated debate. It was escalating so quickly I had a hard time understanding what had occurred to cause the conflict. What made it more surprising to me was that these two gentlemen were good friends.
As I listened to their debate, I learned that the source of the disagreement was about who should be included in pan-regional project funding, should it be secured through grants. One man felt that the other's delegation should not be included in funding. He believed that the richer nations owed it to the poorer nations to forego financial support.
This suggestion was met with outrage. Human rights groups in his country were not rich by any stretch of the imagination, he argued.
Creative tension swept through the room like a whirlwind. Suddenly, what had been a constructive dialogue turned dysfunctional. The anger of the participants built as they became more vigorous in advancing their positions. The rest of the group began taking sides.
Here was the landmine I was afraid of stepping on, exposed and resting just beneath my outstretched foot. All I could think about was how I might diffuse, and survive, this disaster-in-the- making.
As I listened to them men argue I became aware that despite the high decibel levels, they were artful debaters. Their advocacy skills were of the highest caliber.
However, they seemed to operate on only two modes: speaking and waiting to speak. Neither party was listening to the other. They were so focused on winning the debate they had gone from disagreement to conflict in a split second.
Somehow, I managed to interject an observation that they were not listening to each other. I urged them to slow down and attempt to understand the other's perspective.
I'd like to think that it slowed them down for a minute or two. But they were right back at it, only this time, they had new fodder for their disagreement: who was the superior listener!
Claims were made and proofs offered. Then, one of the combatants demanded that I be the judge of who was the better listener. Dumbfounded, I replied that I wasn't sure that listening was a competitive sport! They both thought that was hilarious.
The day's meeting ended on that note. I left the small group shaken and concerned that things had fallen off the rails.
- Story telling builds common ground
- Common ground funds trust
- Trust expands receptivity