'What we've got here is failure to communicate." This line, from the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke, has been much in evidence lately as conflicts and violence have broken out across the world: the Gaza Strip, Israel, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, on it goes. On these macro and micro levels—at home, in the workplace, at school and in cyberspace—miscommunication is common.
In a world that has become increasingly complex and interrelated, there has never been a more important time to communicate with one another at all levels. Ironically, even though technology makes it easier today than ever before to talk with friends, enemies and everyone in between, too many of us instead have chosen not to communicate, to cut off dialogue, and to listen only to those who believe as we do.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton in recent talks has referred to the work of biologist Edward O. Wilson who, in The Social Conquest of Earth, observed that the key strength of humanity is our ability to cooperate. According to Wilson, the most successful species on Earth are those that are great cooperators: ants, bees, termites, and humans. We humans enjoy the blessings and bear the burdens of consciousness and conscience. Clinton also points to other evidence that shows that humans make the best decisions when they communicate with people who have a different view. That is why it is important to have diversity on public and private-sector boards. By talking we learn from one another, develop trust, become more empathetic and are open to achieving goals that benefit all sides.
True cooperation also requires that we develop the art, skill and science of intelligent listening. Unfortunately, listening skills are seldom taught in formal education. Moreover, modern media tend to put a premium on everyone talking and writing, but few people listen deeply. Most people, most of the time, deal at a surface level and do not actively seek to understand the other person's point of view or give others much of a chance to genuinely be heard.
Management literature suggests that being friendly in the workplace will enable one to get ahead. I suspect that this is because a core element in "friendliness" is genuine communication and listening. Learning about others helps us understand them better, appreciate differences and learn that there are many ways to achieve the same ambitions. Communication leads to tolerance and is at the base of the gaining of wisdom. Older people are most often wise because they have had many decades of experience communicating with others and adjusting to ever-changing circumstances.
Unfortunately, today, a lot of energy is spent vilifying the other person, side or party. It is also a matter of concern that in modern society, we admonish our children to be "wary of strangers" and not to trust them. The psychological evidence is that those who engage with and talk to strangers benefit each other as well as society as a whole. It is interesting that people around the world can cooperate to establish the Internet or for a few cents, send a letter, even to war-torn and impoverished zones. However, we can't seem to get together on other vitally important issues such as the need to take collective action to protect our environment.
If we do not learn to communicate and cooperate, our chances of ultimate survival on this increasingly fragile planet will be lessened. Of course, it is also important to have inspirational leaders like the late South African President Nelson Mandela, whose capacity to forgive made it possible for the healing of a divided nation to begin.
As individuals, it may seem there is little we can do to impact the violent confrontations going on today. Yet, I believe each of us can make a difference in our own space, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. We can choose to be friendly and to engage with and genuinely seek to listen to and understand those we encounter in our daily lives.
In these ways, step by step, our communication, cooperation and ultimate chances of success and happiness may improve.
This article was first published by China.org.cn. The author is a columnist with the news website
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