What is Dialogue?

If weapons can't bring peace, what can words do?
At the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD) they tell us that dialogue can help solve conflicts ranging from the domestic to the social to the geopolitical.

But what is dialogue, how does it work,
and what is it actually capable of?
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?
Defining The Terms
When people hear the word 'dialogue' it's easy to think about a conversation, like in a play. But that's not what they're talking about here.

The word originally comes from Ancient Greek. Dia- means through, not two like most people think, and -logos means something close to word or, more precisely, the meaning of the word. The focus here is on communicating in a way that goes deep, that addresses not only people's stated positions but also their intentions, feelings and needs. By bringing a deeper sense of meaning into the room, people encounter each other not only as ideological 'others' but as human beings facing situations just as complicated as the ones we do.
The way we see it, dialogue is a meeting between people where the purpose is to learn from each other. Listen – learn – be changed – these are the characteristics of dialogue. Where propaganda seeks to persuade the other, we seek to understand each other through dialogue. Whilst we try to win over others through debate, we seek to overcome our own stereotypes and enemy images through dialogue. (In this context, changing one's opinion is not seen as a weakness, but as a strength.) Whilst we attempt to reach agreement through negotiations, we try to understand more through dialogue. A better understanding of the other also entails a deeper understanding of myself. I become aware that I could have been the other.
Steinar Bryn and Inge Eidsvåg "What Is Dialogue?" from Understanding The Other (NCPD)
Taking from the classical definition, the international community refers to dialogue as the act of bringing together different sides of a conflict for an act of communication that, if successful, will lead to deeper, mutual understanding. Because this is difficult to do on one's own, especially in emotionally-, socially- or politically-charged situations, the parties are helped by the facilitator.

Facilitators, the word coming from the Latin facilis, or easy, have the job of helping the conversation run as smoothly as possible. They create space for words to flow, help people identify the deeper questions hiding behind the obvious ones, encourage participants to frame their curiosities and fears in productive instead of destructive ways. This can be done with the help of exercises, mediated conversations and by building a sense of trust and respect inside the room.

One thing that separates dialogue from other ways of communicating with the 'other side' is that there's no pressure to have a concrete resolution come out of the meeting. Mutual understanding is enough, which makes it different from debate, moderation and negotiation.
Two or more parties seek to convice, win, shame or otherwise 'beat' their ideological opponents.
Competition is more important than collaboration.
A third party contributes to a conversation by deciding who can speak as well as what can or cannot be said. Meetings, panel discussions or online discussions can all be moderated.
When two parties seek to achieve an actionable solution to an issue.
This is often achieved through seeking compromises, sometimes at the expense of the other party.
A facilitator, who may be impartial or multipartial, creates space where opposing sides can encounter the other in a spirit of mutual understanding and collaboration.
It's important to note that none of the communication styles above are better than the others. There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach that works in every situation. Dialogue is a tool that works in a particular context. Its end goal, mutual understanding, isn't necessarily going to lead to justice, reconcilation or a ceasefire.
Dialogue is not a tool to solve problems like constitutional status, repatriation, economic development, and European integration. Dialogue is a tool to increase the understanding between the parties in a conflict. My argument is that dialogue and reconciliation must not become a neglected element of peace-building. One must recognize that dialogue and reconciliation are a necessary part of this process. Dialogue is not an alternative to mediations or negotiations but both could benefit from a stronger dialogue component.
That, and Steinar tells us that true mutual understanding is hard to build. Very hard. But if you get it – like really, really get it – then the participants might realize that the barriers to resolving a conflict (or even, sometimes, its causes) aren't as insurmountable as they once were.

So how does dialogue do that, exactly?
How Does Dialogue Help Resolve Conflicts?
Dialogue builds points of contact between groups in crisis.

One of the consequences of any conflict, armed or otherwise, is that different parties stop engaging with the other. Stereotypes collect, misunderstandings build up, and it becomes increasingly easy to misrepresent or judge the other side. Without a certain amount of close contact with those who believe, think or live differently, people can even stop seeing each other as completely human.

If different sides have conflicting ideas about who, how or what started a conflict, then parallel stories can begin to develop. These are narratives that tell a simplified, one-sided story about a complex series of events, often portraying one side as an aggressor or villain and the other as a victim or hero. Groups that are affected by parallel stories are much more vulnerable to the influence of propaganda or manipulation.

Dialogue creates points of contact between groups in conflict, allowing people to encounter each other as human beings and discover that there's more to the enemy than they were told. Participants start challenging their own narratives and, as a result, become open to new perspectives, information or relationships. The NCPD experienced this many times over the course of their work in the Balkans after the collapse of Yugoslavia.
Although there were heated debates (yes, debates!) among the participants, it was fairly easy over time to recognize that in order to get the full picture one had to listen to other stories and other explanations. A Belgrade person could not exclude the Zagreb story, not to mention the Sarajevo story. Neither could a Zagreb person exclude the Belgrade story. This does not mean that every republic contributed equally to the breakup of Yugoslavia, it just means that a complete analysis must include different geographical perspectives and historical narratives. At one point, we started to name the seminars in Lillehammer "Expanding Horizons".
Dialogue opens up new ways of thinking and moving forward

Once points of contact are opened up, people often encounter information or points of view that were previously unknown or unavailable. This is especially the case when each side begins to understanding that the other group's stated positions often conceal a complex set of feelings, needs, histories and opinions.

This new information can lead to new ways of approaching old issues, and it can help us react to things closer to as they are rather than as we think they are. This process is never perfect (and never complete), but it can lead to more relevant ways of meeting concrete needs.
It's when we let our guard down and allow our differences and doubts to surface and interact that something authentic and original can begin to emerge, tentatively, in the spaces between us.

And I've found that it's often in these fleeting and complicated moments that the heart and mind can come into synchrony, pointing to altogether novel educational possibilities. The key is to remain alert to those moments and to move with them when they arise.

We know that the most effective process for discovering these layers of meaning is through interactive and iterative dialogues and that if we undertake them sincerely and openly—and patiently—we can sometimes find our way to something entirely new. We assume that individual voices speak and act for the system as a whole, and we listen carefully for a variety of voices and the competing values they represent.

Diana Chapman Walsh, Trustworthy Leadership
Dialogue generates mutual understanding and goodwill

Making contact between groups in crisis and finding new ways of approaching old issues are encouraging breakthroughs. They may even generate enthusiasm that solutions to every relevant issue will be found.

If this doesn't happen, though, or happen fast enough, disappointment, cynicism or even defeatism can set in. There may still be many long years ahead on the path to reconciliation, and there is no guarantee of success. Participants may question whether or not the process is worth it. While dialogue cannot promise easy solutions for problems that prove painfully complex, it does provide a powerful motivation to see the process through: deep, authentic relationships with the other side.

When certain issues seem intractable, or when one faces resistance from one's own side, the mutual understanding and goodwill that was created during the dialogue session can provide many reasons to keep going. There may even be times when reconciliation or healing may not seem immediately possible, and the only thing that keeps the process alive are the connections made along the way.
Very soon.. I saw that the meaning of this project was completely different …to produce a way of thinking which includes understanding the other side. A way of thinking that is not usual here in this area…and that's the reason why I think that it was a very good idea in the very beginning to make this project in Norway in Lillehammer, far away from the area of conflict. The first step if you want to fight against the others is to dehumanize … the other side. Such seminars establish the/a situation in which we see the other side as human beings....

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 others' concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognizes enough of the other's valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other.
What Are The Ingredients Of An Effective Dialogue?
When dialogue works, it's wonderful. People with radically different political, cultural, social or religious backgrounds discover their shared humanity and find reasons to resolve conflicts. Obstacles that seemed permanent stop seeming so permanent. Stereotypes of 'the enemy' collapse in the light of authentic human relationships.

It may sound like a miracle for some, but it only comes after hard work and a great deal of planning, strategizing and, most of all, patience.

Before the dialogue session even starts, facilitators and organizers must make sure a number of conditions are met. Participants have to be ready for the process – the more prepared they are, the more powerful the sessions are likely to become.

While this is not an exhaustive list, these are some of the factors that can make up an effective dialogue session.
A desire to understand, not to convince.
As compared to debate, where parties try to 'defeat' each other, dialogue is a process where success is defined by coming to a deeper understanding of the other side, their motives and their narrative.

Dialogue facilitators can help with this by posing questions or designing exercies meant to broaden understanding and avoid accusations or blame-gaming.
Mutual respect
Mutual understanding is often impossible without some degree of openness and vulnerability, and the parties in a dialogue process cannot open up without there being a base level of respect.

Dialogue facilitators must create a safe space and enforce the principles of respect on all sides. This is difficult particularly in post-conflict situations when participants have suffered greatly as a result of war, discrimination or genocide.
Active listening
One of the ways to encourage someone to listen to your side of the story is to listen to them first. This involves not only listening to what is said, but processing the feelings and needs behind someone's stated position.

Dialogue facilitators often act as interpreters, translating or rephrasing accusations or harsh words so that the underlying feelings and needs can be revealed and discussed openly.
All this amounts to an introduction – this week at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue we'll be learning a lot more. We'll go through a the different ingredients making up a solid dialogue session in more detail, and we'll participate in a few exercises along the way.

What follows is a series of posts that go deeper into a number of these factors. We'll watch a documentary film about the dialogue processes in Kosovo, giving us an idea of what facilitation looks like in real time. We'll be given a task to formulate open questions that prompt discussion rather than accusation or blame. Steinar and the other facilitators will share with us about Lillehammer was an ideal neutral space to facilitate dialogues based in the Balkans (and why safe spaces are important in principle). We'll explore why it's important to give participants breathing room during intense rounds of dialogue. Then there's the important task of resisting the 'right' answers to complicated questions. From there, we'll discuss the broader architecture of peacebuilding as well as some final thoughts on the week and what we heard.

It's a bunch to take in. I'm glad we got lots of sleep.
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 writer and dialogue practitioner. In June 2018 he participated in the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue summer school.