People are gathered around a table.
It's clear that there are at least two sides involved, each looking at the other with suspicion. Some might be wondering why they're here. Others are wondering why those people
were invited. Most, at some point or another, ask themselves if any of this has any point at all.
Yet a conversation happens – it might start slow, even argumentatively, but then the facilitator asks a specific question, or maybe one of the participants says something unexpected, and people start opening up. They realize it's okay to be vulnerable, or to ask embarrassing or obvious questions. And if enough people start trusting each other, it's almost as if the room temperature transforms and it becomes possible to talk about what people are really here to talk about. Some participants describe the change like some kind of magic.
This, we're told by the staff at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue
(NCPD), located in the Norwegian town of Lillehammer, is something that actually does happen. It's part of a process called dialogue
, and our own facilitator, Steinar Bryn
, tells us it can be a way to work toward peace even when there's been a war.
A number of us in the room are skeptical, but this is why we're here. To find out more. Most of us are students at the University of Oslo's International Summer School (ISS) and were given a chance to arrive a week earlier for an extra five days at the NCPD. Some of us are from countries that are post-conflict zones like Guatamala, hosting peace talks like Colombia, suffering from open war like Ukraine, and sites of frozen conflict like Armenia. A few of us are taking the Peace Research class at the ISS, myself included, so it's all very much relevant.
They tell us that dialogue, in the international sense of the word, is an attempt to build a bridge between people, groups, cultures or even armies so that deeper levels of mutual respect and understanding can take root. This is in hopes that knowing the other side better, or at least hearing their side of the story, might open up new ways to solve issues that look unsolvable.
The theory is is that many types of conflict begin or are intensified because of misunderstanding and fear rather than a real desire to do another human being harm. Of course there are malignant interests behind nearly every conflict, and there are people who really do want to hurt others, but the vast majority of people who fight (or die) in a war would much rather be doing something else. The same goes for people locked in long-term cultural, social or even interpersonal conflicts. When misunderstanding and fear are involved, it becomes easier for malignant actors to manipulate people into picking up weapons (metaphorically or literally).
So if fear and misunderstaning are like fuel for a fire, the logic goes, then reducing them makes it harder for a fire to start, or spread, or do as much damage.
But why is this, what exactly is
dialogue, and what makes it work?