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Today, I interviewed the area chief about the strengths and challenges of the local community. We talked for about an hour, and I took at least 5 pages of notes which I’ve since spent much of the afternoon making into coherent reference points for myself in a Word document. There’s a certain art to such conversations … trying to strike the right balance between nudging the conversation towards your objectives while letting it go in an organic, appropriate, and ultimately useful direction. There’s much more to doing an interview than “I HAVE THIS QUESTION, YOU WILL ANSWER IT AND WE WILL MOVE ON,” particularly when issues of hierarchy and social appropriateness need also heeded.

There is an anthropologist named Alex de Waal who, though primarily a Sudan specialist by training and experience, has written widely on a variety of topics concerning Africa, human rights, humanitarianism, the United Nations, landmines, and Marine-eating sharks. I read a number of his pieces for my most recent Africana studies/Anthro class, and while I, ah, may not take to heart everything he says, I’m sure this won’t be the last time I mention him on this blog.

The below article, which I have reproduced in part and linked to the original – which is available on the fabulous and useful Making Sense of Sudan blog – is about a skill most people assume they have, but few actually do: listening. It seems self-evident – duh, just listen, right? – but it isn’t. As a crisis counselor and a PhD-track psychology student, I’ve received a fair amount of training on the topic. As a Peace Corps volunteer, human rights advocate, traveler, student of culture, and any number of other roles into which I will be stepping over the next two years, I’ve no doubt it’s a skill I must continue to exercise and hone. Even if I return with the intention of never setting foot outside US borders again (HA!), I have no doubt I’ll ever have a shortage of opportunities to use it.

Anyway, to conclude, no matter whether your adventure is public health in Kenya, disaster documentation in Darfur, or wobbling along on unsteady legs as you head out into the first steps of your career, listen. You may hear things you expect. Or you may hear things you don’t.

Aaand, take it away, Alex.


On Listening

I have spent many hours in Darfur observing how outsiders ask questions and listen to the answers they are given. It is easy to end up with the answers they expect and want, often unconsciously putting words into people’s mouths. (Quite often, in a rush to record a definite answer or opinion, they literally put words into people’s mouths, demanding, “so you mean ‘X’” and taking polite assent to mean informed, voluntary and comprehensive agreement.)

This was the topic of my very first publication on Darfur, “On the perception of poverty and famines” (International Journal of Moral and Political Philosophy, 1987). Visitors to the region, typically from aid agencies, asked people about the value of the aid they were getting. People were enthusiastically thankful. The relief food was called “Reagan” after the man who had donated it, and aid officials were told that without “’esh Reagan” people would surely starve to death.

As soon as it started raining in June 1985, the people who had told us that they had nothing to live off except “Reagan” quietly slipped away from the relief camps, left the aid supplies, returned home, started planting, and resumed their normal lives. When I asked people how they actually survived the famine year, “’esh Reagan” was a pretty minor factor. The way to get to that conclusion was not to ask people what they thought about relief food (I didn’t find anyone who said it was a bad thing, or unimportant) but to observe what people actually did, or to let them tell their stories in their own words, at length. It is like the U.S. public opinion survey in 2005 which found that most Americans supported UN intervention in Darfur “to stop genocide”—the phrasing of the question presumed the efficacy of the action which in turn determined the answer.

Be careful what you listen out for: you may hear what you expect. An essential skill of a good mediator is to listen for the unexpected or contrarian, to explore controversy rather than hastening towards consensus which may turn out to be a false one.

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Yours truly