Number 01/2007
Learning to Listen
07 February 2007

Award-winning journalist Mary Louise O'Callaghan learned to listen in a whole new way when she married into a traditional Solomon Islands community

When you marry a Solomon Islander you marry their family, their island, and the nation. This has been, most times for me over the last two decades, a great privilege and blessing and not without a few challenges.

I'd been working in the region for several years, and it came as quite a shock to realise how little I'd got beneath the surface of these societies. Once I was in a Solomon Islands family I began to see the currents and the depths and the history. There was so much more behind the events I was reporting on. I also learned how much of what I thought was my personality was actually a product of my culture.

One of the areas in that interests me is communications. We white Australians tend to talk in headlines. We create a pyramid. We start off with the most important point we want to make and then we might fill in some details as we go. It's a highly competitive process – we all compete to get our points in. There's not a lot of disrespect felt if you cut in, and you can jump back again with your point.

It is completely the opposite of the Pacific islanders' way of communicating. Like many indigenous people, their communication style is an inverted pyramid. They want to give you the context first. They want to explain why something is important. It means you might not get to the heart of the matter for three sentences, or three hours, or three days, depending on the issue and the circumstances. They will actually wait for the space, for the silence – and if you don't give it to them they won't necessarily try and punch in that headline. Silence is something that we are pretty scared of. We are programmed to fill that silence as quickly as possible – its embarrasing, we are not saying anything to each other. Our ability to enjoy and participate in non-verbal communication, in silence, is not something that is familiar to many white Australians or Europeans.

I remember one of the first interviews I did in Vanuatu. I felt there was a real meeting of minds with this person and was happy because he'd said things which confirmed the points that I'd wanted to make in my feature article. I raced back to the hotel to transcribe the interview so that I could use his quotes. The problem was that all of his sentences were finished off by me. I hadn't actually let him finish what he was saying – so I didn't have quotes I could use. I've had to discipline myself as an Australian journalist to actually stop and listen and wait.

So one of the things we can do in our contacts with people in the region is to try and listen in that different way, because that is the only way we are going to hear the truth they might have for us, or the wisdom, or the pain, or any sort of information. And it's only in hearing that that we are able to learn. And that is actually what we need to do more than anything in terms of our relationship with the region.

In 2000 the coup occurred in the Solomon Islands. I and the family were in Australia and we found we couldn't get back home to Honiara. I felt very disenchanted, both with the country of my birth and the country of my choice. The perpetrators of the coup had selfishly imposed a culture of the gun on what had been, essentially, a very peaceful nation and I knew that the majority of Solomon Islanders did not want this as their future. As for the country of my birth – after 12 years of reporting on the region it was the pinnacle of frustration that Australia was in denial about the quite significant role they could play (and eventually did come to play).

And it struck me that Australia was treating Pacific Island nations a lot like our indigenous people. We throw a bit of money at them, a few gestures, and then hope they will go away and not make too much noise. Certainly from my knowledge of the Solomons I knew that this wasn't a long term answer. Having had the gun imposed they would need assistance from a regional power, like Australia and New Zealand, to put things right. And I feel that one of the things that casts a very dark shadow over our relationship with the region is our own relationship with the indigenous people of Australia. Until we rectify that we can't be and won't be at ease with indigenous people in the region.

In 2003, RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands), led and funded by Australia, arrived after September 11 and the Bali Bombing brought home to the Australian Government concerns about how stable the region was. They were greatly welcomed and were very effective because the community got behind the effort and felt secure enough to put pressure on their own militants. As a result the majority of the guns were returned. I was pleasantly surprised at the scope and generosity of the mission – that they didn't just try to put a lid on the criminal activity and weapons, but they actually recognised some of the systemic issues that had led to this and were willing to put in people and resources to rebuild.

In 2004 Initiatives of Change helped us in the Solomons have a conference called the Winds of Change. Out of that came a group, now known as Winds of Change – many of them very young and enthusiastic Solomon Islanders. We felt that, after the intervention forces had come, Solomon Islanders need to work on issues of public integrity and also rebuilding trust, healing and reconciliation. It's a long task that's far from over yet. Eventually we decided that we would mount a clean election campaign, modeled on a similar campaign in Kenya, with a message that if you want a clean election you start with yourself, and encouraging people not to take bribes.

It's been a terrific experience for me. As a journalist and the wife of a politician I spend a lot of time with cynics, criminals and all sorts of people I don't really respect. So it's been great to work with those young Solomon Islanders. It's one of the times I've really felt that I could share some of my experience as an Australian in a way that was welcomed and reciprocated. I have also learned a lot about hope and redemption through them. It's a bit like what the immigration officer said to my husband, once, when he arrived in Brisbane and started to be asked a few extra questions, and Joses said 'what makes you think I want to migrate to your country?' The officer said 'We're not all that bad you know!' And we're not. We just have to be aware, and work at the fact that we don't know everything. We need to be willing to listen to others, to really listen, to go with open hearts and open minds.

Mary Louise O'Callaghan is an award-winning journalist and commentator on regional Pacific affairs. She is originally from Melbourne but she has lived for the last 20 years in the Solomon Islands. She is married to Joses Tuhanuku, a former Member of Parliament and Government Minister. This article is taken from a speech at the recent Australia as a Neighbour conference.