Listening in Times of Intercultural Conflict and War

Listening in Times of Intercultural Conflict and War

Professor Claude-He le ne Mayer Ph.D.
Professor in Industrial and Organizational
Psychology at University of South Africa,
Johannesburg. South Africa

“God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer.”
Mother Theresa

The author’s voice

I sit with bated breath as I listen to the radio, listening to the sound of bombs detonating in faraway lands.

The deafening tumult of war and intercultural conflict is only seldom interrupted by silence.

How could we best use this momentary quiet?

Which attitude and skill are most significant in overcoming deep socio-political entrenchments and personal resentments?

This presentation will take a closer look at the leadership and skills of selected world leaders from around the globe and provide the audience with insight into accounts of intercultural conflict and warlike dynamics and potential solutions proposed by these selected leaders and their different cultural perspectives.

  1. Introductory thoughts regarding intercultural conflict and listening
    Intercultural conflict and war are on the rise and often involve complex, easily misunderstood processes and dynamics. These processes and dynamics must be reflected and the views and perspectives of actors and stakeholders must be taken into account. They often include detailed dynamics arising from sociocultural histories and are anchored in politics and webs of relationships, economic interests and socio-emotional entanglements. But how, is the question, can we at least begin to understand these complexities? Which skill is present enough to help unravel the complexities and reach for deeper understanding of all sides of the coin and finally help to form a solution?

    • Defining Listening
      Listening is a “skill of critical importance in all aspects of our lives” (Sage, 2019, 1) – it helps us maintain relationships, get our jobs done, even figure out our daily tasks. Regardless of how we’re engaged with listening, it’s important to understand that listening involves more than just hearing the words that are directed at us. Listening is a fundamentally active process.This process involves five stages: receiving, understanding, evaluating, remembering, and responding (Sage, 2019). Basically, an effective listener needs to hear and identify the speech sounds directed toward them, understand the message of those sounds, critically evaluate or assess that message beyond their own culture, remember what’s been said, and respond (either verbally or nonverbally) to information they’ve received.This process requires not only attention to detail and the ability to focus, but also the ability to read between the lines and interpret the message in context-specific ways. This is extremely challenging when the actors of communication find themselves in stressful situations influenced by underlying negatively perceived emotions, such as fear or anger.
    • Listening in intercultural situations
      Listening becomes even more complex, when we find ourselves in intercultural situations of conflict or even war. Intercultural conflict can be understood as a clash in the interests of individuals, teams, groups or states, while war is defined as a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country (Mayer, 2020).War can be summed up in a few short words by Canadian poet, literary critic and essayist Margaret Atwood (1993): “War is what happens when language fails”. When a message is not received, not understood, not evaluated, not remembered, or not responded to, the dread beast of conflict rears its ugly head. Dynamics of escalation in intercultural conflicts and war times are usually based on the differences of perceptions, feelings and actions between the conflict partners (Glasl, 2011).Listening in scenarios of intercultural conflict and war – involving different actors of communication from different cultural backgrounds with varying methods of communication, and verbal and non-verbal expressions based on differences in human values and rituals – is challenging, but can open doors to deeper understanding, meaningful exchange of ideas and peaceful solutions.Historically, in different socio-cultural and national contexts, we find examples of great listeners who made a difference by listening and communicating, particularly in politics during intercultural conflict and war scenarios. Let me provide you with some selected examples of listening leaders.
  1. The US-American example of a listener: Abraham Lincoln
    One great example of a leader who led by listening is Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the 16th President of the United States of America, who cultivated personal relationships through patient communication and listening: Whenever Lincoln spoke with someone, he would give them his full attention, listening carefully to every word (Ruiz & Koten, 2017). In doing so, he would develop a deep understanding of their feelings, concerns and motivations. In turn, they would see someone who could be trusted. Lincoln was like this with everyone he met and he thereby overcame numerous socio-cultural barriers and deescalated conflicts. People felt genuinely understood by him, making him a formidable leader, rooted in his personality traits and his deep interest in learning about the perspective, motivations, intentions, feelings and thoughts of the other person.
  2. A woman listener: Angela Merkel
    Another example of a contemporary politician who was driven by listening skills was previous German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who led a unified Germany for over 16 years. Her negotiation style was informed by observation and listening, always following three rules: taking the outsider’s point of view, listen to learn and favor reason and analysis over impulsivity. Growing up in East Germany, Merkel was aware of the dangers of speaking her mind. She learned to observe and think before speaking, thinking a few moves ahead (Pon Staff, 2021), in anticipation to turn what she has previously heard into an analytical understanding of past, present and future moves.Strong listening skills are a key aspect of Merkel’s negotiation style. One longtime political associate highlighted that Merkel typically speaks 60% less than her conversation partner in discussions. For some Germans, the chancellor’s penchant for listening and waiting before acting has proved to be excruciating. In fact, her cautious leadership style has inspired a new German verb, “merkeln”, which describes a situation in which people do nothing, do not make decisions or make no statements (Connolly, 2015) – but listen carefully.
  3. A South African listener: Nelson Mandela
    Exploring listening in African perspectives, Nelson Mandela is an extraordinary example of listening skills. During the times of Apartheid, Mandela fought violently against the Apartheid regime and spent 27 years in prison, before becoming the first Black president in the free, Post-Apartheid South Africa in 1994.In focusing on Nelson Mandela, due emphasis has been given to his resoluteness and constancy of his challenges. However, another facet of his leadership is of importance: his willingness to listen and learn (Denning, 2013).Nelson Mandela when asked, told people he learned to be a good listener by watching his father lead tribal meetings. The tribal elders would sit in a circle facing each other as much as possible. As the conversation evolved his father would inquire, listen intently and never offer his comments until everyone else had spoken.Most of the credit for the transitions in social, cultural, and political thought in addition to peace in South Africa must be attributed to Nelson Mandela for being willing to listen and learn that his violent actions and previous mistakes did not contribute to a peaceful society. He was willing to reconsider and change his beliefs and build a new South Africa through peaceful change where voices of reconciliation were heard and recognised.
  4. An intercultural, spiritual listener: Mahatma Gandhi
    As an example from India, Mahatma Gandhi was an outstanding communicator in his non-violent struggle for freedom (Prasad, 2020). He mainly used three ways of communicating: spirituality, meditation and prayer; songs and dance; and speeches. However, his listening skills always went along with his communication efforts.Gandhi was a virtuoso listener – he would listen to the problems faced by people; he would listen to his opponents and he would identify the subtext of every word spoken. He cultivated not just listening to others, but also listening to himself, which helped him keep his moral compass and values, integrity, and being able to respond to others’ messages (including subliminal) and causes with empathy. Gandhi even went to the extreme and practiced silence every Monday; in 1926 and again in 1946, he practised a year of political silence (writing notes to convey his feelings and directions). He was taught an indispensable lesson on the importance of silence, ‘to listen to the inner voice’ on his visit to a Trappist monastery in South Africa. In Gandhi’s own words, “I understood a precious lesson. I knew the secret of silence.”Gandhi did not only see his attitude of listening and being in silence as an ability or skill, but rather as a lifestyle and highlighted: “My life is my message.” (Quinn, 2013) – a message of listening and silence, even in times of conflict, violence and war.
  5. Conclusions: Listening in times of intercultural conflict and war
    Dealing with experiences of intercultural conflict and war often evokes deep emotions, such as fear and death anxiety – not only in the people directly affected by conflict and war, but also in individuals’ witnessing it.Both experiences, conflict and war, might stimulate complex phenomena of trauma on individual and collective levels which are anchored in the past and present of individuals and societies. Listening leaders aim at listening to the voices of people affected and traumatized by war and intercultural conflict and through their patience, silence and listening presence show their empathy while aiming to define solutions based on the different perspectives and interests involved. Through their listening abilities, listening leaders explore the socio-cultural, political and economic opportunities and boundaries, while contributing to the healing of the pain and suffering of the wounded. Their presence and listening brings comfort, hope and in the best-case in-depth reflection, the transformation of negative emotions, inner growth, and the openness to reconsidering actions.The examples of listening leaders presented have shown that observation, silence, listening and reading between the lines, as well as the undivided presence in communication situations lead to informed leadership decisions and the ability of great leaders to connect to deep universal human values of human connection and peace, as well as constructing positive emotions. Listening, as a multimodal process, is thereby based on attitude, skill, behavior, physical, physiological, sensorymotor, cognitive and affective functions and becomes part of the leader’s identity and is therefore unquestioned authentic.Listening leaders have come to appreciate the centrality of listening by engaging in listening-centered events. However, listening leadership requires more than just the presence of listening, it requires listening and leadership to be connected to interrupt intercultural conflict and war scenarios in a wise way and to transform the animosities towards peaceful solutions, providing safe spaces of silence and wisdom.Listening in times of intercultural conflict and war can help, when the listener creates a save environment, focuses on the other without distraction, aiming at understanding the substance of what the other person says and captures ideas, asks questions, restates issues to confirm that their understanding is correct and to bridge eventually occurring cultural gaps. Listeners, however, do not only listen with their ears, but also with their eyes, considering non-verbal clues such as facial expressions, perspiration, respiration rates, gestures, posture, and numerous other subtle body language signals. Gaining ideas about the emotions involved and the impact of those on the actions and reactions in intercultural conflict and war scenarios is key to listen in a non-judgmental way, taking all ideas, emotions and moves seriously. The listener becomes a force which finally also listens with the heart, opening a space of loving kindness that is usually missing in intercultural conflict and during war. This silent and present loving kindness is part of the key to a peaceful world.If the contemporary leaders of this world would bring their listening skills and abilities together and listen with their ears, their eyes and their hearts: what would this mean for the war and intercultural conflict raging between Russia and the Ukraine?

    I would like to close this conceptual article with a quote from Rumi who used the wisdom of listening to strengthen the understanding of the complexities in situations:

    There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen. Rumi

    Acknowledgements Many thanks to my son Lolo Mayer who always listens and discusses my research with me.


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