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Changing the World by Changing How We Talk and Listen

Adam Kahane
March, 2009


I have spent the last twenty years trying to understand how to change the world. For most of that time, I have worked in the world of business. Established companies, for the most part, try to anticipate how the world will change so they can then prepare themselves to meet those changes.

I have also made many excursions into the world of politicians and guerillas, civil servants and community leaders, trade unionists and clergy, working in countries with histories of deep conflict: Guatemala, South Africa, Colombia, Israel, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere. When people from countries in conflict come together to work for change, they are trying to change their futures—change the world—not simply anticipate change and prepare for it. From my observations, the quality of the conversations people have is the most important indicator of whether they will succeed in effecting deep change.

A lot of what I know about changing the world I have learned in Guatemala. Guatemala is evidence of the horrifying worst of humanity. Guatemala is also evidence of the inspiring best of humanity. This country has the dubious distinction of having had, from 1962 to 1996, one of the longest-running and most brutal civil wars in Latin America. Even the torture instructors the Guatemalan government hired from Argentina were appalled by what they witnessed there. More than 200,000 people were killed or “disappeared”—the rare transitive use of this verb, as in “to disappear someone,” was introduced into everyday vocabulary in Guatemala—and more than 1 million were forcibly displaced, out of a total population of only 8 million.

In 1996, after 10 years of negotiating, the government and the guerillas signed a set of Peace Accords. Guatemalans started to sweep up the broken pieces and rebuild their lives and their country. With great energy, creativity, and courage, they launched large and small initiatives to repair and recreate the shattered society and shredded social fabric. Amidst the devastation, they are seeding and growing a new and hopeful future.

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