Dialogue Approach

Space Between Sessions

Much has been written on how to intiate, structure and facilitate a dialogue session. But what happens when people aren't at the table is just as important.
Nansen Academy's Lillehammer campus is made up of a few buildings slightly downhill from the road. The roads here not being large. We share rooms in the dormitory, and the salmon on the lunch menu makes us want to cry. In a good way.

Leaning over tables at breakfast time. Huddled outside and lighting someone else's cigarette. Haunting the coffee room on break between sessions. Dragging our feet when it's time to head back to our seats.

Some might say we need to manage these moments so they don't disrupt the real work of a seminar. But Steinar Bryn, our facilitator at the Nansen Center For Peace and Dialogue (NCPD), says this is an important part of the real work.
From Steinar's account of the original Lillehammer sessions:

The participants could not sit in the classroom all day long. The program developed included an understanding of social, physical and cultural needs. The face-to-face meeting became important also in various social activities. It is important to deal with difficult issues in dialogue. But it can be equally important to know when to take a break and go bowling or swimming. This can help release tension but it also provides new arenas where people get to know each other in new ways. We deliberately used the opportunities Lillehammer provided for skiing, dancing, cultural performances, museum visits or just going out for a beer. Slowly the others grew out of being the representatives of other ethnic groups, and showed the human range of multiple identities. Some even fell in love across the ethnic divide.

In a fairly natural way, people would form friendships according to interests in music, sports, culture, outdoors, drinking, and bashing the Norwegian ways. These relationships were brought with them back home, and became a backbone in the soon to be Nansen Dialogue Network. This experience of the importance of building relationships has influenced the work of the Nansen Dialogue over the last ten years in such a dramatic way that we can say we do not work from the political paradigm of power, but from the paradigm of building relationships. Politics is not about getting the access to power, but about securing the equal distribution of resources and opportunities among people who live in relationships marked by mutual respect for each other.

It can be tempting to think of active discussion as the only productive use of time. This is understandable when people have travelled very far to take part in the talks.

But limiting people's contact with each other to moments around the table can deny the full experience of the dialogue process.
Benefits of allowing for space between sessions:
Release Tension
Participating in a dialogue process can be stressful. Allowing for "off-time" can give people space to recharge and be themselves. No one can operate at 100% all the time without burning out.
Encounter the Other As Human
It's easy, when people are in conflict situations, to dehumanize the other side. This can continue during the dialogue process itself. By allowing participants to encounter the other in relaxed, friendly settings, you encourage them to see each other as multidimensional human beings.
Deepen Respect
These encounters often lead to the growth of mutual respect on all sides. More often than not, constructive dialogue isn't possible without the respect needed to listen to others when they challenge our understanding of politics or recent history.
Relationship Building
Not only are some participants surprised to find themselves liking those on the other side of a cultural, political or ethnic divide, many of them for deep, sustainable friendships. These relationships can form the bedrock of future initiatives back home.
Steinar invites us to his family house in the middle of the week for a barbecue. Most of us still don't know each other very well, but we don't say no to the ridiculous view of the lake or the garden party or a sun that almost doesn't set or a Norwegian alcohol that most of us will never try again. It's made from potato, but definitely not vodka. I mention to one of the guys that I collect stories on the road and he asks to sit down later. People start putting together playlists. Some of them can really, really move.

Some of us haven't relaxed in front of the other yet - even the words we use can be interpreted politically. But it's hard to be defensive when people are doing line dances, salsa or a cheesy sprinkler.
Steinar Bryn is a dialogue practitioner with extensive experience working in the former Yugoslavia and other post-conflict societies. He, along with the NCPD, have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner. He attended the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue summer school in June 2018.