Chilean Protests 2019 in Puerto Montt (credit: Natalia Reyes Escobar, CC BY-SA 4.0, no changes)

Last week, after offering a workshop on companies and human rights in northern Chile, my colleagues and I got in one of the few taxis circulating around town. We asked the driver if he thought we’d be able to get to the airport. Numerous organizations had called for a nationwide strike in the context of the social crisis rocking the country, and we had heard that many roads were cut off by barriers made of burning tires. His response? A nasty remark insinuating that the protesters were all immigrants committing violent acts on the other side of town. Besides being racist, his statement was factually incorrect. Like the protests happening all around the country, the majority of protesters in that northern city were Chileans peacefully marching for social change.

My co-trainers and I protested against his denigrating language and told him we were just leaving a human rights workshop. He looked bemused but toned down his language. Then, my co-trainers did something else. They put on their headphones and checked their phones. They didn’t speak or listen to him again.

The crisis in Chile, like ones happening elsewhere around the globe, is complex, and will require sophisticated political solutions, starting with a recently announced process for drafting a new constitution. And yet, it will also demand something seemingly simple: if a new constitution is going to be representative, if new public policies are going to address the legitimate concerns of a diverse society, if the public is going to be meaningfully involved in these efforts, then we are going to have to listen to each other and keep dialoguing, even if we don’t like what the other “side” is saying. Somehow, we need to fight the urge to put on our headphones when we hear something that is unappealing or that we disagree with. If we can’t, then how can we build broad agreements that take various sectors, priorities, and viewpoints into account? How can citizen dialogues or industry roundtables “put on the table” a full range of perspectives and realities if people aren’t comfortable expressing differences? How can we come to tolerate diversity within society if we can’t engage with people who think differently from us? 

A bit of background: on October 18th, protests broke out in response to a metro fare increase in Santiago, Chile’s capital city. These were accompanied by rioting, including the burning of 20 metro stations in Santiago and public transport elsewhere in the country. The violence was breathtaking and was met with a state of emergency declaration, imposing curfews and putting the military in charge of public security, which for many brought back ghosts of the Pinochet era. Throughout the past weeks, the violence has continued, met at times with a heavy-handed response by government and police. As of November 15th, the National Human Rights Institute had presented 346 lawsuits against state agents (mostly police) for human rights abuses, including five murder cases and 246 cases of torture and cruel treatment.

At the same time, the initial outbreak of protests and rioting quickly turned into a broad and mostly peaceful national movement for a more equal society (Chile is generally regarded as South America’s most stable and wealthy country, however, despite consistent growth and poverty reduction in recent years, it remains among the most unequal of OECD countries). A public opinion poll published on October 24th found that almost 84 percent of Chileans either “agreed” or “very much agreed” with the protests. On October 25th, 1.2 million people protested peacefully in Santiago. Citizen “cabildos” – open meetings within communities and organizations – began to pop up spontaneously around the country. Specific political and policy demands began to emerge, including a push for a new constitution (to replace the dictatorship era one), and improved pension, health, and education systems.

Which brings us back to the taxi driver. Despite the seeming “agreement” around the need for change, most conversations today appear to be happening among circles of likeminded friends and acquaintances. We are hearing prejudices abound: the rich who are “greedy” and “don’t care about anyone else”; the protesters, who are “anarchic” and “have never worked a day in their life”; the idea that this whole movement is somehow orchestrated by foreign governments and immigrants.

Listening to each other and engaging across differences isn’t the whole solution to Chile’s crisis, but it’s a fundamental part of moving toward progress. It’s something that needs to happen at local, regional, and national levels, within and across sectors. So, how do we do it? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Leverage the crisis. In the conflict resolution field, we teach that crises aren’t necessarily bad. Rather, they can present opportunities to generate real change. When thousands of people are out protesting, when neighbors are banging on pots and pans, when a violent subset is burning train stations and tires, there is something you need to hear. Use the crisis to remind yourself to open your ears and listen.
  • Be aware of your triggers. We all have issues that set us off and/or make it hard to listen to others. Whether it has to do with our values, our personal experience, or something else, it helps to take the time to notice what makes us want to put in our headphones or walk away. If we know what our triggers are, we are in a better position to stick with the conversation even if we’re triggered.
  • If your principles or values are threatened, say so. Even in times of heightened tension, it is possible to engage in dialogue around values and principles. If someone is saying something deeply offensive, say so – and explain why. Verbalizing your values can help others understand your perspective better, and why you may seem inflexible on some issues. It can also help you both find ways to talk about those issues without threatening your underlying values.
  • Be genuinely curious and try to take in others’ perspectives. Most of us have personal experiences or analyses that have led us to think and feel the way we do about certain issues. Taking the time to understand why people think the way they do can help us understand differences, on both substance and personal levels. Doing this involves being genuinely curious about where the other person is coming from, trying to take in their perspective, and trying to avoid immediately judging what they say.
  • Be open to changing your mind. We typically start a conversation certain we are right. Sometimes we are. But part of being curious about why someone else thinks the way they do means being open – even just a little – to changing your mind if they can convince you and/or broadening your understanding of the issues based on the other person’s experience and thinking.
  • Notice when your inner voice is taking over. It’s hard to truly listen when you’re thinking. But it happens to all of us. Someone says something we disagree with, and we’re suddenly thinking, “this person is crazy!” In our minds, we’re busy writing the person off instead of actually hearing what they’re saying. This “inner voice” is giving us important information about our emotions, triggers, and arguments, but it’s hard to listen when it’s in control. In these situations, try noticing that you’re lost in your thoughts and then focus back on the other person.
  • Seek the substance behind difficult language. Sometimes, someone uses upsetting language to make a legitimate point. We may even agree with that point, but we’re so put off by the upsetting language that we can’t acknowledge it. While hard, looking for the substance behind difficult language can help us stay engaged when conversations get difficult. We often call this reframing: taking what someone says and putting it in other words so that it’s easier to hear.

Which brings us, one last time, back to the taxi driver. When my colleagues put in their headphones, he didn’t seem to notice. He kept right on talking. Being somewhat accustomed to difficult conversations (and the one in the front seat), I stuck with the conversation. It was xenophobic. We disagreed a lot. I did a lot of reframing, and trying to understand the personal experiences that had created his point of view. But he also listened, and showed he was curious about what I thought. Eventually, his anti-immigrant rhetoric focused on the poor social safety net, which, in his view, is caring neither for the growing immigrant population nor for older workers like him. It turns out that we agreed that Chile needs better pensions, health and education, and a new constitution. Stepping out of the cab, I thought to myself, I hope we all can get better at staying in the difficult conversations. It’s probably the only pathway to a more constructive dialogue about our shared future.


Photo credit: Chilean Protests 2019 in Puerto Montt by Natalia Reyes Escobar (no changes), CC BY-SA 4.0