Saturday, March 05, 2005

What My PJ Training Has Taught Me

My basic peace journalism (PJ) training has strangely done significant wonders, not in my writing, but in my speaking.

I have been writing freelance for local, national and some international publications for the past 24 years, since I was 13 years old, and the concepts I learned from my PJ training were basically just another set of tools in the bag which I could use in presenting topics and issues in a manner that promotes deeper thought and reflection, and a more peaceful consciousness.

But, it has only been half a year since my PJ training weekend ended and already, I have made notable strides in my improvement as a peace-promoting speaker.

Being by nature open, honest and candid, I've always have had a personal struggle with speaking my truth in a non-threatening, less hurtful way.

When I do speak my truth, I have been called everything from "refreshingly candid" to "painfully honest" to "brutally blunt" and "insensitive", and it has always been a struggle for me to get my message across as kindly as I could. So, my usual recourse before, when faced with the choice of either being brutally blunt or kind, was to hold my tongue and just stew in silence. Some times, it worked, especially if the issue at hand was not so important; but more often, in matters of principle, it only made me guilty and resentful, and I ended up brutalizing bluntly, anyway.

Now, with my PJ training, I have found a better recourse. Here are some of the few concepts I have used to improve my speaking behavior:

1. Separate facts from perception and opinion.

Whenever a topic is discussed, it usually escalates to an "issue" for argument, when the people involved mix up their facts with their own perceptions and opinions, and mistake their own version of truth as The Truth. So, in speaking with people now, especially when I find that the discussion is quickly heating up, I take a deep breath, step back (even if only mentally), and ask the other person involved and my self if we can please review first what has exactly happened, and THEN discuss our feelings and opinion about what has happened.

Usually, I find that we agree on what has happened. If not, we only disagree at those points where we had incorrect or partial information, and a cool, calm, non-threatening review of the facts brings out all the information necessary, from all sides.

This initial agreement almost instantly brings the boiling temperature down to a manageable level, so that by the time we discuss our opinions, we are able to see that each other's opinion is filtered by each other's unique personal background and character, even if the opinion also always contains a grain of truth in it. When we bring the discussion further deeper into the feeling level, we begin to appreciate each other's vulnerability as a human being, and we learn to be more careful of the words we use because at a basic level, our words either harm or heal.

2. There are always more than two extremely opposing sides to an issue.

Given the experience above, one soon learns that the world is more of a rainbow than a strictly black-and-white palette. As more people are involved in a discussion, and no. 1 above is observed, one sees and learns that there are many truths leading to a bigger truth, and in a most basic way, each truth is valid, from each person's point of view.

Given this principle, which gives rise to the notion of also interviewing the "people on the ground" (those directly and intimately connected with the issue at hand), aside from just interviewing the official "authorities", I have also learned to ask about the facts from primary sources rather than just secondary ones, no matter how authoritative they are supposed to be. And I am learning that there is a whole spectrum of interpretation of the facts, usually according to the source's intimacy with the actual event.

3. Beware of labels.

"You are just plain lazy, that's the problem." When faced with this statement, our usual reaction is to respond back defensively or attack the other person, too, quickly contributing to escalating conflict.

But if we step back and ask some initial probing questions--

a. Why do you say that?
b. What did I do to make you say that?

to get the facts, we soon learn that the accusation is basically just a perception and opinion of the other person. That realization is a tremendous release to not take things too personally anymore, and if we care about the person or the relationship with that person, to focus on working to a better understanding of facts and the personalities involved, thus creating a richer and more harmonious relationship.

"The project is a failure, because you did not perform as expected." Again, this is simply an opinion. What does one mean by "failure", according to which standards? What was expected? Was it a generally understood expectation, or was it a personal expectation of the other?

4. The best complaint is the one that also suggests a solution. Otherwise, it is just plain bitching.

We are so enmeshed in a global culture of complaining-- of mistaking opinions for facts, of a you-(or they)against-us mentality, of thoughtlessly assigning dangerous and unfair labels--without also engendering a culture of solutions that it is no wonder our world is so conflicted these days.

Imagine what could happen if, for every time a person, citizen, lawmaker, lawbreaker complains, there is a "penalty" of also coming up with a suggested solution to the "problem" (I prefer to use the word "challenge"; "problem" connotes an impassable blockage, "challenge" connotes the potential for hurdling it)? It would be good, too, to "require" the complainer to be an active part of that solution. : )

And imagine further what could happen if, when a solution is suggested, all parties involved take time to thoughtfully reflect on the perceived challenge and the suggested solution, discuss the facts involved, as well as the opinions and feelings on the matter?

(Imagine Bush and Bin Laden doing this? Heehee. On deeper thought, is it really about Bush vs. Bin Laden? Hmmm. But then, that's another story.)

Just the experience of going through this process transforms the persons involved, into becoming more humane and peaceful, instead of regressing to just being mindless, helpless complainers.

In the end, the best lesson I learned, not just from my PJ training itself, but from working with Pax Christi, is the first lesson I learned when I joined Pax Christi, and it is the opening statement we use in the Peace and Conflict Journalism Network (PECOJON)'s e-group website's introductory note:

Conflict is part of life; conflict is part of change.

And, conflict does not necessarily mean violence. There are other alternative, more co-creative ways of addressing conflict.

Peace offers many avenues.*
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