By Donella Meadows
–March 11, 1993–
Lately I have been watching people in seven towns in New Hampshire tear each other apart over whether the beautiful river they share should be federally designated as Wild and Scenic. It’s a sad spectacle. Old, good neighbors, all of whom love the river, can no longer talk to each other.
More accurately, they talk to each other more and more, at higher and shriller pitch. The louder they get, the less they communicate. On some level, from a family fight to a civil conflict turned uncivil, something like this has probably happened to you.
You’re talking to someone on a topic you care about deeply. You’re not getting through, so you talk faster and louder. And faster. And louder. You hardly stop for breath. Suddenly you are consumed not only with your subject, but also with your anger at those who don’t understand, your memories of fighting this battle before, your frustration that you have to say these things OVER and OVER, your fear that you may NEVER be understood.
With so many emotions to deal with, you are no longer paying any attention to your audience. And, of course, your audience is no longer paying attention to you.
If you have been on the receiving end of such a tirade, you know why the audience checks out. People can’t be force-fed with emotion-laden information. They turn off. The turn-off comes all the more readily if the message reminds them of some fault on their part, some guilt, some failure, some grief or hurt they would rather not think about.
So we have the stuck points of humanity, the wars of words, the people who feel unheard no matter how much they speak and the people who won’t listen no matter how much they hear. Stuck points do not happen around trivial issues. You have to care a lot to lose your cool, or to be so afraid of losing it that you cannot let yourself listen.
In families, in the United Nations, in workplaces, in government, in South Africa, the Middle East, and what used to be Yugoslavia, in environmental hearings and school board meetings, outside abortion clinics and in beautiful river valleys, in the most important conversations of our lives, we make noises that lead only to irresolvable animosity.
Nearly always in these shrill situations, there is a power differential. Usually the frustrated speakers have the least power, or think they do, and the nonlisteners have the most. As we know from Lebanon and Northern Ireland and Los Angeles the most likely consequence, other than continued stuckness, is an eventual outburst of violence.
Is there any other possible outcome? I hope so, because I don’t want to live in either stuckness or violence.
It could help if the yellers could recognize the point where they lose contact with their audience and stop before they launch themselves over the emotional cliff — but not give up the effort to communicate. Maybe they could point to the situation: “You’ve just stopped listening to me. There’s something about this matter that always keeps you from listening. I’d like to find out why. But I don’t know how, and meanwhile I feel distinctly unheard.”
That much self-discipline in tirade-deliverers is unlikely, but there’s another possible way out. The non-listener could be be the one to acknowledge the situation. “I can’t hear you when you’re heaving all that emotional baggage at me. Let’s slow down. Let’s wait till your frustration passes, and then I promise to hear you out.” Words like that would come easier if the sayer could admit that his or her own history of denial has created the frustrations that are producing the shrillness.
I wish that the white South Africans, before they go another step in trying to deconstruct apartheid, would declare a day or week or month in which the blacks could pour out that which they have been trying to say. A whole week in which blacks would talk and whites would listen. The whites could answer, but only when they had absorbed everything the blacks have to say. By itself this process wouldn’t solve a thing. Without it, forward progress is almost impossible.
Imagine the same kind of time-out full dump, each side talking without interruption, least powerful side first, between the citizens of South Central and the L.A. police department. Between the heads of corporations and the workers. Between you and the member of your family who can least hear you.
I imagine it between the folks who fear that rapacious developers, including the federal government, will dam their free-flowing river or turn it into an open sewer, and those who fear that zealous environmentalists, with the help of the federal government, will tie the hands of landowners, while picking their pockets. The fears on both sides are powerful, understandable, and wildly exaggerated. There’s no reason why these people can’t manage their river together and wisely. But first they have to discharge their suspicions, their anger, their stored-up hurts.
Stepping back to talk about the inability to talk, getting out the deep, hard issues, finding a resolution through human relationship rather than power plays, can be painful. But much less painful than staying stuck.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993