Excursion 1

Cabin Trip

A cabin trip with the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue.

If the Nansen summer school was mostly about theory, their trainers took this opportunity to demonstrate practical exercises.
The Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue shares some practical tools for promoting dialogue.

They are not, however, without controversy.
When students come to study at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)'s summer school, one of the first things they do is head out into the bush.

A cabin trip, to be precise. It's a compulsory part of the program – not only because it's an exercise in team-building, but because it's coordinated by the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD). There are 25 students in the group, and eight of us participated in the Nansen summer school just a week before the PRIO program began.

But the summer school focused on the theory of dialogue: what it is, how it works, why it can help with even armed conflicts. On this cabin trip we will hear from Chro Borhan, a Nansen trainer, about some of the exercises they use in the field. What we hear from her, and what we discuss among ourselves, leave us with more questions to work through than we expected.
Norway, the cliche goes, is the perfect wilderness wonderland. Nature improves character. Even diplomats are hale from the hikes they apparently all take on weekends. Our group's made of people from desert, steppe, marine and agricultural regions, and we roll our eyes at the nature-worship stereotypes they give us at orientation.

But really: this place is beautiful.

We could take a bus all the way to the cabin, but instead we take a suburban train to the start of a trail and then hike through the forest until we arrive. We picnic and feed ducks along the way. Try to get to know each other without getting too deep into the "why are you into conflict studies?" of it all. Participants being from where they're from, that could get a bit personal.

The cabin, as it turns out, is unnervingly perfect. A well-stocked kitchen. Sprawling living/study spaces. Two nearby swimming holes and a sauna in the basement. The weather is grand. The cauliflower: delicious.

Chro worked with some of us last week and assures us that the material will be different from what we learned with Steinar. Where most of what we were told then was theoretical, the next two days will be more practical.

But first there's a bit of catching up for the others to do:
A Brief Introduction to Dialogue
The section on this website dedicated to the NCPD gives an extended look at the dialogue process and the components of facilitating meetings between diverse groups, and so only the basics will be repeated here. For a more in-depth introduction to dialogue, feel free to read our page What Is Dialogue?
Dialogue is a way of communicating which focuses on understanding "the other" rather than trying to convince them that you are right. This understanding enables us to build sustainable relationships and create a solid foundation for successful mediation and negotiations.

When the level of conflict is high and the segregation is deeply rooted in society this is undoubtedly a challenge. In divided communities it can be hard to find the space that is needed for all parties to feel safe. Sometimes this will be in another place than where they live.

In dialogue we invest in creating a supporting and safe space where the participants can share their experiences, feelings and thoughts.

"The dialogue attitude is based on the understanding that preconceived judgements have a limited validity. We do not know the answers, which is why the art of questioning is so central."
-Steinar Bryn, "Can Dialogue Make a Difference?"

Curiosity and the act of asking questions are essential to successful dialogue. How can we know if we do not ask? Asking questions on sensitive and controversial issues is an act of humility and courage. Through our questions, we admit a lack of knowledge or a harboring of doubt. This renders us vulnerable. Remaining in a vulnerable situation is only possible if the participants trust they are in a safe spot. The role of the facilitator is to create a safe space, prepare the ground and ease the process.

"If we fail in creating trust, the dialogue will deteriorate. I have experienced that half the group has gotten up and left the room, but that has only happened when I started arguing with the participants."
-Steinar Bryn, "Can Dialogue Make a Difference?"

Arguing is an aspect of debate. In a debate the goal is winning, whereas in dialogue we want to reach a deeper understanding. A better understanding of "the other" will in the long run contribute to overcoming segregation and creating meaningful coexistence.

"Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take the other's concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreements persist No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognized enough of the other's human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other."
-Betty Pruitt & Philip Thomas, "Democratic Dialogue: A Handbook"

Our pedagogical approach is based on profound respect for people's knowledge, capabilities and abilities. This knowledge is not linked to formal education; it is based on the vast field of personal experiences from life itself.

This approach allows people to feel free to express themselves, to grow with the process and to support the growth of the others. The trainer is there to gently guide this process.
Taken from "Introduction" in The Nansen Handbook for Trainers In Dialogue and Conflict Transformation (NCPD)
A key thing emphasized was how engaging in dialogue does not mean not having your own opinion, or saying that all opinions are the same. This misconception can create a lot of problems and lead to people being suspicious of dialogue – especially if they are focused on justice ("why should I dialogue with aggressors?") or truth-seeking ("why should I give a bigger platform to something I don't think is true?"). Dialogue, Chro says, is about collaborating in a spirit of humility to try to get a clearer picture that takes into account the other side's needs and experience.

Having different opinions can be okay, even about the big stuff. Steinar Bryn, an NCPD facilitator who trained us last week, was fond of saying "it takes some talk to start talking."
Key Qualities of Dialogue
Following up on this last sentiment, getting more comfortable with diverging opinions, the first exercise we're given is a chance to talk about some of our differences.

The NCPD, in their dialogue trainings, identifies twelve key qualities that are essential to creating an atmosphere of dialogue and mutual understanding:
Dialogue is communicating with integrity. Non-verbal aspects of communication, intentions, attitudes, values and thoughts must be consistent with the words used.
Dialogue does not mean accepting anything or everything from others. It may require that we challenge or oppose the other's assertion. When this is the case, it must be done in a way that upholds the humanity of the other and us.
Dialogue involves seeking to know oneself and showing one's strengths and weaknesses to the other.
Caring for the other
Dialogue requires accepting responsibility for the other, without expecting that this will be reciprocated.
Common language
Dialogue is about striving to achieve a common language.
Understanding first
In dialogue, we seek first to understand and then be understood.
Dialogue is about understanding and exploring relationships.
No agreement
Dialogue is not necessarily about agreeing or becoming like the other.
Dialogue is more about listening than speaking.
No judgements
In dialogue, we try not to pass judgement. Judgements, generalizations, blame or diagnoses destroy the dialogue process.
Nonverbal communication
Dialogue can take place even in silence. Body language and facial expressions are essential for dialogue.
Dialogue means personal and societal change.
Taken from "Dialogue Activities"
The Nansen Handbook for Trainers In Dialogue and Conflict Transformation (NCPD)
We're given a handout with the twelve key qualities of dialogue and asked to, individually, pick six and list them in order of importance. Chro then has us form two large groups and, through consensus (no voting allowed), come up with a general list that represents our common understanding of which qualities are most important.

Obviously the lists differ. And the whole point is to understand why: what informed our individual lists? What was challenging about trying to form a common list? What principles guided you when selecting what was most important?

Part of the dialogue process, generally speaking, is learning how to speak not only about positions (what quality we list) but about values too (why we picked what we did, or why we're averse to picking something else). This is a theme we return to later.
Active Listening
Another key part of dialogue is learning how to listen to another person. Like, really listen.

A common exercise that the NCPD has their trainees do involves pairing up and telling each other important stories – but, each time, the listener should be doing something else. Like looking at their phone, or interrupting with their own story. Then we're supposed to listen attentively and feel the difference.

Some of us feel like that's a little artificial (of course we understand, at some level, that glancing at your notifications makes the other person feel less visible), and so we're relieved when Chro sends us off in pairs just to listen, without a structure. We're asked to share something that happened to us, recently or no, that shaped us in some way. Or that says something important about who we are and why we're here.

This is similar to an exercise done during the Nansen summer school last week asking us to share What made you? It's purpose? To build rapport, to create an atmosphere of vulnerability and trust, to resist the urge to be sarcastic or hide behind masks. It's also about trying to understand the dynamics of what happens when we share in risky ways, and how that can make us feel safe or otherwise. If we want to understand how to help groups in conflict resolve tricky issues, we need to be able to navigate the emotional spaces opened up when the different sides share something important with the other.

It's as much an icebreaker as anything else (this whole weekend doubling as a team-building exercise for our group), and the rapport is said to help us take in the rest of the exercises.
Separating Behaviour, Feelings & Needs
A common thing to see in trainings like these is some variation of the Iceberg model:
We're asked to take a step back from looking at the facts (in this case, the observable behaviour of an individual or group in a conflict) and start looking at the underlying factors that inform them.

This could come down to someone's intentions, or their thoughts, feelings, values or attitudes.

A large part of this is trying to understand someone's needs, and to understand that speaking to these needs is going to have much more of an impact than reacting to the behaviour that surfaces because of them.

The famous pyramid developed by Abraham Maslow structures needs as a hierarchy, with the needs at the bottom taking precedence over the needs at the top:
Saul McLeod | Wikicommons
While Maslow is a helpful start, many have pointed out that the pyramid isn't always as reliable as it looks (some people, for example, sacrifice their safety for the sake of loved ones, or their physical needs for the demands of spiritual enlightenment).

Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef offers a different perspective, saying that the fundamental needs we have are subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom.

Different cultures address these needs (and prioritize them) in different ways, which can also lead to inter-cultural conflict. These needs are interrelated and interactive rather than strictly hierarchical, and when trying to resolve difficult conflicts we might try to see if there's some misunderstanding or perceived discrepancy in the ways people are trying to meet their needs.
What we need, of course, is a break. Or several.

We take turns heading out to a nearby pond. I'm out in the middle of the water with a groupmate from Uzbekistan who, I learn, never learned to swim in her childhood and is positively exultant.

In the evenings we drink Moldovan cognac, play chess, teach people Russian card games. Go for walks but never too far. For some people it's the first time they've ever seen forests like these.

We're here to study, most of us given generous scholarships from the University of Oslo (plane, room, food, tuition) that actually makes it possible to be here. Investing in future leaders and all that, particularly Asia, the former USSR, the global south.

But us also goofing off. Enjoying the view. Not thinking about colonialism and its legacies. It's a paid break from whatever projects we have back at home and, for a time, all this feels like Hogwarts. Talking about needs: the need to be able to kick back between classes discussing the causes of civil war, the dynamics of conflict-based sexual violence, the predicted waves of climate refugees in the coming decades.

We like the opportunity to still feel young.

Four Corners
Nonverbal communication is emphasized as much as verbal, especially when there's a dialogue process going on in a large group. One way to try to involve the whole room is through an exercise known as Four Corners.

To prepare, take four pieces of paper and write the words AGREE, DISAGREE, I DON'T KNOW and MAYBE on them. Stick them onto the walls of the room (or, preferably, the corners) and ask participants to stand up and move to the middle of the room.

The activity leader explains that they will say a statement that the participants will be able to react to. If they agree, they can move to the corner where the AGREE sign has been taped. If they disagree, they can move to the opposite corner. When everyone is standing in the corner that corresponds to their answer (choosing to sit out can also be okay), the different groups can share about why they chose what they did, and participants in other groups can ask them questions.

The statements are often ones that are meant to provoke a diversity of responses, and having participants respond with their feet can be a productive alternative to having them shout answers that may prove controversial. Also, instead of having a few voices dominate the conversation, everyone's opinions (if participants answer sincerely) are obvious from the start.

When talking about conflict, statements can be something like "People with different cultural backgrounds cannot live together," or "Ethnicity creates differences instead of unity" and so on. The facilitator picks statements ahead of time depending on the situation involved.

One variation can have participants coming up with their own statements, either on their own or within the groups they form in response to another statement.

Other variations can have people form groups not according to the four typical answers, but something else. Chro asks us about how many languages we speak (we form groups according to the number), how many kids we might like to have, or what kind of religious beliefs we find resonant.

This last bit was a bit controversial, as some participants felt that dividing us by religion or parental dreams was insensitive or triggering. It gave us an opportunity to think about how important it is for facilitators to understand the group's context and triggers (in order not to alienate anyone, if that's a goal), as well as how groups might not be ready to be that vulnerable with each other right away. Building rapport may take time.
The Onion
We return to the issue of needs with a model that Chro refers to as the onion. Developed by facilitator Simon Fisher and his colleagues in the book Working With Conflict, the onion is a way of thinking about people's positions (what they say they want), their interests (what they really want) and their needs (what they must have).

The diagram looks like this:
The distinction, we're told, can help us understand conflicts better and propose solutions that are likelier to hold over time.

Let's take a look at an example in which two countries have sent in troops to secure a lucrative oil field. One country might say that they are protecting the livelihoods of the indigenous people who are employed in extracting the oil. This is their stated position. Their actual interest, however, is in maintaining control over the oil field and extraction process.

If negotiators stay on the level of positions (indigenous/ethnic rights), some progress might be made (particularly on the level of human rights), but a sustainable agreement would prove difficult because of the underlying (and often publicly unacknowledged) interest. By engaging with the country's real goal, and including it in the negotiation process, any resulting peace agreement would be more comprehensive.

However, both sides might have an interest in controlling the oilfield and so may see the situation as a zero-sum game. In this case, looking at the needs underneath the interests might help. While the first country's interest is in control, their need might be for economic stability, maintaining territorial integrity or even for saving political face. There might be another solution to the issue (other than military action/control) that meets these needs, and therefore might form the basis of a comprehensive peace agreement. It's rarely a simple process.

A needs-based approach can help generate new options in seemingly-intractable conflict, but there's a dilemma that has to be addressed. Looking at needs (and participating in the dialogue process) promotes an image of both sides as equals.

This can be deeply problematic for many, especially if they perceive the other side as an aggressor, oppressor or a more powerful force, generally speaking. While an impartial or multipartial facilitator may generate solutions that attempt meeting the needs of both parties, one or all of the sides involved may claim that the other's needs are not legitimate and thus need not be addressed.

This is a huge issue, though, and can't be adequately addressed in this session. That, and it's difficult to discuss abstractly. So much depends on the concrete details of a particular conflict.
Identifying Types of Conflict
There are a number of different reasons to come into conflict with someone else: you might disagree with what someone says, how they say it, what they believe about history, where they source their news from and so on. If one person cares more about relationships and the other about data, then they may end up fighting over things that might not be mutually exclusive in the first place.

Understanding what the conflict is about can save time, energy and keep us from adding one more headache to the list. Chro lists six types for us to consider:
Often the parties in a conflict do not have sufficient information, or even the same information, about a situation. Collecting and clarifying facts can go a long way toward easing tensions.

Parties might also interpret the data in differing ways, or assign different levels of importance to the same data. Open discussion and input from trusted outside parties can help in assessing the relevance of available information.
Conflicts about material resources such as land, money or objects are normally obvious to identify and often lend themselves well to straightforward bargaining.

Sometimes, however, although the parties appear to be squabbling over a resource, the real conflict is about something else, perhaps relationships or the psychological needs of one or both parties.
People in familial relationships, business partnerships or community organizations commonly have disagreements over a variety of issues, but sometimes the interdependence created by their relationship introduces a destructive dimension to differences that would otherwise be easily resolved.

Past events or years of stereotyping can make people inflexible or unwilling to try even the most fair and obvious solution. Goals, roles, responsibilities and different perspectives about past experiences may need to be addressed before the other conflicts can be tackled.
Interests or Needs
Important and powerful human needs for things such as identity, respect or participation are often at the heart of conflicts which present themselves as contests for material things. Constructive opportunities for individuals and communities to express their needs and feel that they have been heard are critical to addressing these needs.

Often, long-term resolution of a resource conflict depends as much on meeting the interests or needs of the people involved as on dividing the resources.
Social and organization structures determine who has access to power or resources, who is afforded respect and who has the authority to make decisions. Conflicts about or within structures often involve justice issues and competing goals. Such conflicts often require years of effort to effect constructive change.
Values and beliefs are formed by life experiences and faith perspectives. A challenge to someone's values are often perceived as a threat to their identity, and this makes conflicts involving values the hardest to resolve.

Most people react defensively to this type of threat and withdraw from negotiation, assuming that a resolution of the conflict will require them to change their values. But being able to clarify their values and feel that they have been heard and understood allows parties to move away from defensiveness, and might even result in the parties learning to live together in mutual acknowledgement of their differences.
— Text taken from "Understanding Conflict," The Nansen Handbook for Trainers In Dialogue and Conflict Transformation
Identifying Conflict Behaviour Styles
In addition to classifying a conflict, identifying different approaches to dealing with conflict can empower parties and negotiators to act in ways that help promote their needs as well as their interests or positions.

There are five classic behaviours when it comes to conflict identified by psychologists Ralph Kilmann and Kenneth Thomas in the 1970's.
There are many who would describe compromise and problem-solving as the ideal approaches to conflict resolution, each behaviour type addresses a unique set of needs that are good to take into account.

Competition (also known as Control)
Concern for goals: High | Concern for Relationships: Low

Benefits: effective in cases of immediate or perceived danger/threat.
Drawbacks: can create cycles of conflict if the 'loser' translates their hurt into aggression.

Avoidance (also known as Non-Engagement)
Concern for goals: Low | Concern for Relationships: Low

Benefits: more space to gather information, not getting involved in issues that are not one's business.
Drawbacks: problems can continue to grow, people can perceive avoidance like manipulation or coercion (which it sometimes is).

Accomodation (also known as Peace At Any Cost)
Concern for goals: Low | Concern for Relationships: High

Benefits: preserves relationships, allows for coming back to conflicts later, emphasizes areas of agreement.
Drawbacks: doesn't solve underlying issues, only takes into account one set of interests, peace agreements may not be comprehensive or sustainable.

Compromise (also known as Give And Take)
Concern for goals: Medium | Concern for Relationships: Medium

Benefits: Allows for everyone to get at least one thing they want, can be a productive start, solves certain conflicts quickly.
Drawbacks: can lead to short-term solutions, leaves participants feeling like their needs are not totally met, may shut down the negotiation process early.

Collaboration (also known as Problem-Solving)
Concern for goals: High | Concern for Relationships: High

Benefits: seeks to meet actual needs, creates more mutually-satisfying outcomes.
Drawbacks: can take more time than allotted, resource-intensive, requires good faith from all parties, may not move fast enough to protect vulnerable groups.
The King & The Queen
Many groups use dialogue processes as a way to help people learn how to speak to, work with or live alongside others with different values. This is one of the trickiest parts of the whole process.

Chro wants to give us a taste of what it means to discuss differing value systems, and so reads us a story:
The King loves the Queen, but he has to go on a long journey. He suspects that the Queen has a lover, and therefore he orders the castle guards to kill her if she leaves the castle during his absence. He tells his wife about this before he departs from the castle.

When the King has left, the Queen's lover contacts her and urges her to come to him. She says that she cannot come, since the guards have been ordered to kill her if she does. Her lover says that he desperately needs to see her, and says that it is important that she comes the following night.

The Queen talks to one of the guards, who says that he will protect her and help her get out of the castle and back inside, provided she returns by midnight.

The Queen meets her lover and comes back to the castle on time. The guard who promised to help her has fallen asleep. Another guard sees her as she tries to enter the castle, and kills her.
Taken from "Culture and Ethnicity" in The Nansen Handbook for Trainers In Dialogue and Conflict Transformation (NCPD)
Our task is to rank each of the characters (the King, the Queen, the lover, the guard who falls asleep and the guard who kills her) according to how responsible we think they are for the Queen's death.

We do this first by ourselves, and then we have to gather in groups to try to reach (without voting) a common list. Then we present our list to the whole room and discuss our reasons, or the difficulties we had in trying to rank them together.

This, it goes without saying, wasn't the easiest task we had all day.

One of the reasons why we had a hard time coming up with lists, especially in small groups, is that the story asks us to probe our moral reasons for who is responsible for what. And, depending on what values we hold (or promote), we can come up with really, really different responses. Which is what happens in the room today.

We're encouraged to use some of the tools we've already learned (as well as the types of questions we learned about last week at the Nansen Summer School). We don't use them perfect, but here are a few things we heard about why we pushed certain characters further up or down the list (as well as what values those choices may imply):

The King: Saying the King's responsible implies fairly common values like justice against perpetrators, responsibility for orders and a sense that the ones at the top of a decision-making structure need to be held more accountable than the ones who actually carry out the commands. This matches the legal structures in many countries around the world.

Those who disagree say that the King is a product of his times, that maybe he didn't mean it or that he was driven out of jealousy and not out of malice.

The Queen: There were a number of people who said the Queen herself was responsible for her death. This could imply a patriarchal value set, where a woman is expected to do certain things and otherwise must be punished. But there's another opinion that focuses on agency and her own free will. She knew the risk, and by taking her life in her own hands she takes responsibility for what follows. For some, removing her responsibility is a way of stripping her of her power and her ability to make her own choices (while facing the consequences.

Those who disagree say that this is an example of victim-blaming, and that the focus should be on the people who ordered her death or on the power structures that make events like this possible.

The lover: The lover was generally lower on the list than the other characters, but the ones who placed him higher up said that it was his selfishness that caused the whole scenario, and that he was the one who tempted the Queen while knowing the risk. He misused love, which for some is something that needs to be protected. Violating the act of love can be considered worse than killing an unfaithful wife.

Those who disagree say that, while the lover may be selfish, he wasn't the one who actually did the killing. Also, they mention that giving the man more responsibility than the woman can also be a sign of patriarchy or double-standards.

The guard who falls asleep: Similarly to the lover, the guard who falls asleep violates a value: friendship and trust. As a military man, betraying his word is a sin against his own honour, and in honour-based cultures this can be seen as unforgivable.

Those who disagree say that, since it was an accident, he shouldn't be blamed at all.

The guard who kills her: Ranking the guard who shot the gun at the top is often a sign that a person values individual actions, and that you can't escape responsibility (even as a soldier) for orders that were given to you from on top. The emphasis is on persons rather than systems, and highlights his ability to disobey orders (like the first guard) or to choose not to participate in the system that made the killing possible.

Those who disagree emphasize that maybe the guards have less power, or that refusing orders would mean that their lives (or those of their loved ones) could be in danger.
The exercise was controversial, and Chro tried to draw our attention to the ways that our different values (and how we rank them) impact the way we talk about the story. Are we making moral judgements? How do we go about asking people to describe their reasons? Do we perceive other values as threatening, and in what circumstances?

One factor that made this exercise complicated was that some women said, later and not in front of the group, that even discussing (and hearing their colleagues promote) values that they interpret as victim-blaming made them feel like our group was giving a platform to patriarchal values. Ones that make them feel oppressed. Which makes me wonder what other stories we can come up with for exercises like this, preferably that don't make some participants feel uncomfortable.

Which is a good reminder that none of this stuff, not even peace research, is neutral by itself. Even with good intentions, the way we collect data, analyze trends or teach a class can communicate values that people might react to in ways we don't expect.

Which doesn't mean we need to throw everything out the window. It took a long time to get where we are today. But being aware of nuances like this, some say, can create a space where everyone can contribute, and maybe find solutions to problems and conflicts we thought were intractable.
Chro Borhan was a dialogue advisor at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD) until 2019. She currently works for the Norwegian Directorate of Integration and Diversity.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and peacebuilding practitioner.
He studied at the NCPD and PRIO in 2018.

Additional photos by Hayk Smbatyan, Halina Palamarchuk and Peter Faber.
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