Final Thoughts

Some reflections on putting it all together, when dialogue is most appropriate, and where it fits in peace & conflict studies.
There was a lot to take in over the course of the week we spent at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD), ranging from theory to practice to tools to stories to seeing the bigger picture.

But all this amounts to is an introduction to how it works, how it's used and where it can be applied. Each of the previous articles is limited in scope and vision, and there were a number of things that there wasn't enough space for. What follows is a list of small reflections on other factors that impact the dialogue process, and how to work with them.
Preparing participants for dialogue
There's a lot of work that goes into planning and facilitating a dialogue seminar – but sometimes the act of bringing people to and preparing them for the table involves the most effort. This was mentioned in a previous post about convincing skeptics that dialogue is worthwhile, but not much was said about how to prepare those who are interested.

This can involve helping one side see the other's needs as legitimate and worthy of being listened to. Or it can involve making the space safe enough for certain participants to participate. It can require facilitators to identify what unseen power structures might exist, how they work and predict what affect they can have on the dialogue.

A lot of work sometimes needs to be done with groups who might not know how to identify their own needs, feelings, responses or values and articulate them productively.

One of the more significant aspects of a dialogue seminar is helping participants understand the other side's needs, and there are certain ways questions can be structured that facilitate this process. There was a full post dedicated to questions, and helping participants understand the importance of formulating them is a key element to preparation.

They may also need to be prepared for the fact that other participants may be entirely new to the process. Dialogue, like any way of communicating, may not seem entirely intuitive or natural at first – more experienced participants may need to be patient with their colleages when this 'gap' shows itself.
Power structures exist and can have negative effects
One of the principles of dialogue is coming to the table as equals, no matter if you're a member of a powerful or marginalized community. Facilitators treat everyone the same and are encouraged not to show preferences or give certain privileges.

While this is a noble ideal, it's implementation is impacted by the fact that power structures do exist beyond the dialogue table and can have a major influence on a given seminar or process.

For some, the act of dialogue can appear to favour those who are in a position of power, often at the expense of weaker, marginalized groups. This can happen when a victimized group (or a group that sees itself as victimized) perceives the 'equality' of the dialogue table as a kind of lie that doesn't match up to reality.

There are also certain groups that use dialogue as a way of legitimizing themselves and delegitimizing another group's desire to keep their distance. It can be a way of creating an impression that 'everything is all right' and 'all we need to do is talk,' when the weaker group may desire action, justice, revenge or protection.

For some, there is also the issue of gaslighting to be dealt with. Gaslighting is a kind of psychological manipulation in which one side attempts to make the other side doubt their perceptions, feelings, memory or sanity. The legitimate act of challenging someone's narratives makes someone vulnerable in a similar way, and it may be difficult for marginalized groups (or anyone who sees themselves as under threat) to distinguish narrative work from gaslighting.

Dialogue processes are a form of positive peace, an approach to conflict resolution that requires active engagement with the sources of a conflict. Success is defined when those underlying factors are resolved and the resulting conflict is no longer necessary.

The opposite approach, negative peace, responds to conflict by seeking to identify and neutralize a threat, often as soon as possible. It is usually chosen by groups/people who actively see themselves as under threat. Dialogue facilitators or recruiters, as advocates of an approach that favours engagement over protection, can be seen as part of that threat.

Dialogue is not impossible in these kinds of situations, and having an awareness of who feels under threat, and what the nature of that threat is, can help with the creation of a safe space that's relevant to the needs in play.
Facilitators and dialogue advocates also have needs
There can a stereotype that facilitators, or generally any who engages in dialogue, are neutral and don't necessarily have needs or interests of their own.

While many who advocate for dialogue processes value neutrality (or even 'multipartiality'), they are still human beings who have their own needs to take care of. Ignoring these, or treating them as less important than those of other participants, can lead to burnout and frustration.

One such need that can be easily ignored is the need for rest. Facilitation, and any kind of prolonged engagement, is energy-consuming and can easily make one tired. Having multiple facilitators, especially during a prolonged dialogue process, can be essential.

Some might feel a responsibility to engage with those who disagree with them, regardless of the circumstances or their personal safety. This is an example of the classic tension between positive and negative piece (described above), and it requires repeating that safety is an important need that should be addressed in all situations.

While it is important for facilitators, generally speaking, to refrain from speaking to their own needs, feelings or interests, there can be cases when speaking of them can build a sense of vulnerability, trust and safety in a room. One's own needs and interests can be communicated in ways that are perceived as unimposing. This is an important skill to use especially during non-facilitated, spontaneous dialogue, when refusing to speak to one's personal opinions, needs or interests would be absurd.
It takes some talk to start talking
Dialogue can sometimes mean inviting people to the table who have views that some participants can find threatening or unacceptable, and there can a fear that giving them a platform for expressing their views will legitimize them.

This involves elements of threat, safety and power structures (see above), and are often a sign that there needs to be a heavy amount of preparation before the dialogue itself can take place.

The NCPD, as I've understood, generally takes the stance that dialogue can help even in these types of circumstances, and that even preliminary conversations can help the different sides encounter each other as human and thus find motivation to try to sort out even some of the thornier issues.

One example was at an Israeli initiative called School for Peace in which a condition for participating was the recognition that Palestine is an occupied territory.
"But what about those who do not believe that?" I asked. "They would not come anyway" was the answer. Nansen Dialogue wants to include those who "would not come anyway". To do dialogue only between the already converted is almost a futile exercise.
Dialogue doesn't have to (and perhaps shouldn't) be presented as another way to negotiation a settlement to deeply complicated issue. Since its purpose is to generate mutual understanding, as well as to encounter the other side, there can be more leeway to include partiicpants with viewpoints that might, in another context, be seen as problematic.
Reason and emotion
While many of us may feel like we are entirely rational creatures, we often rely on our emotions or intutions when confronted with complicated, sometimes threatening situations.

To exclude emotion, or to constantly minimize its voice, is to demean the whole dialogue process. The question shouldn't be "how do we deal with it" so much as "how do we include emotion constructively?"

There are a number of ways to do this. One is to formulate questions so as to learn more about what a person feels and why. Once a feeling has been articulated, it can be incorporated into the general discussion as another factor to be taken into account.

Another way that emotions can be respected is allowing for participants to let off steam. Sometimes this means letting people yell at each other or act in potentially aggressive ways within the context of the session. This is often done at the beginning of a dialogue process, usually before the parties are asked to formulate open questions for each other.

Dialogue, as a tool for peacebuilding, lies at the intersection of social and psychological practices. There is a lot of research and practical tools for processing the ways that reason and emotion interact, particularly in communication. While most dialogue initiatives emphasise historical grievances, cultural factors and geopolitics, there are some that engage with the structures of the human mind. Techniques like nonviolent communication were developed by psychologists looking to bridge these two worlds together, and techniques developed by organizations like the Center For Applied Rationality (CFAR) and other members of the rationality community attempt to turn the vast amounts of psychological research into usable tools and techniques. There will be more written about this in the section dedicated to workshops given by CFAR and the Deep Democracy Institute (DDI).

Sometimes, however, participants may choose not to disclose their emotions. Harassing people to express themselves, particularly in vulnerable contexts, can make them close up even more. This can be a matter of preference or a matter of health, and is a legitimate choice either way.

Other times, it must be said, it isn't a matter of choice. It's a matter of trauma.
Trauma and grief
One criticism leveled at the dialogue process, and in particular at certain facilitators, is that it is not equipped to deal with participants who show signs of deep trauma. The act of engaging with narratives and memories can be harmful for certain participants, and they find themselves deeply triggered in ways that aren't resolved in the context of a seminar. This poses deep questions of responsibility and care.

Another criticism is that reconcilation can seem like an insult for people who have not had time to grieve what they lost over the course of a conflict, no matter if the conflict in question was a community breakdown, a divorce or a war. Some participants need more time to feel and accept their loss before being confronted with the losses of the other side. At the NCPD this week, we've heard more than once that "reconciliation is giving up the hope of a better past."

The dilemma of respecting people's need for healing while also wanting to bring healing to the community through dialogue and engagement is one that needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In many cases, professional help is necessary.
There are often powerful actors that are against dialogue
This is probably one of the most pertinant points: there are often larger forces at work, whether social, religious, cultural or geopolitical, that are not interested in the work of healing and dialogue. There are actors who will pretend to take part in the process sincerely, but who ultimately have bad faith. There are groups that benefit from conflicts socially, politically and financially. And, more often than not, they are more powerful and have more resources than the organizations working for dialogue.

Anyone looking to engage in extended dialoge processes in their community would do well to think about their goals, desires and possibilities realistically. Dialogue can and does enable powerful changes in society, but it takes patience and time.

A single incident can destroy years of work. The groups who fund dialogue may do so with interests that are less-than-virtuous. Other issues may be seen as having a higher priority.

This doesn't mean that dialogue is futile. On the contrary, it works best when it's seen as one tool in a toolbox that, depending on the actor, can include negotiations, research, debates or even sanctions.

They key is in being able to see when someone is willing to talk. Even when they might not know it themselves.
Josh Nadeau is a writer and dialogue practitioner. In June 2018 he participated in the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue summer school.
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