Dialogue Approach

The Need For Neutral Space

Creating space for dialogue to happen is one of the main jobs of a facilitator. For the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue, this meant taking advantage of their hometown: Lillehammer.
Lillehammer was part of the vision for the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD) from the very beginning.
The Lillehammer Sessions
Lillehammer hosted the 1994 Winter Olympics at the time that Sarajevo, the 1984 Winter Olympic host, was under siege. Disturbed by these events, a number of locals began an initiative to start dialogue processes in the quickly-dissolving Yugoslavia. This led to the development of the Nansen Dialogue Network, which originally hosted a number of dialogue sessions between Balkan ethnic groups in Lillehammer.
Sarajevo: from Olympic city to city in ruins
Steinar Bryn, a facilitator at the NCPD, has written at length about the benefits of having a neutral space to discuss sensitive issues:
They could analyse what happened and why in a more neutral space, remote from the conflict area and pressure from family and colleagues
The main strength of the project became not what they could "learn" from Norway, but the fact that (1) the Nansen Academy provided a space where they could come together and compare notes – simply do dialogue; (2) They could analyse what happened and why in a more neutral space, remote from the conflict area and pressure from family and colleagues: (3) They could interact with participants having other ethnic identities in multiple ways, transforming their perception of the Other to become much more than just the representative of another ethnic group; and (4) Through staying together for three months relationships and friendships developed across ethnic divide. These relationships were later utilized in building up the Nansen Dialogue Network that established dialogue centres in 10 different cities in ex-Yugoslavia (Osijek, Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Mostar, Podgorica, Pristina, Mitrovica, Belgrade, Bujanovac and Skopje).
Here are some of the factors that go into creating a constructive dialogue space:
Physical space where
dialogue can take place
The actual, physical space is an important element for hosting a dialogue. Having an offline place to gather with the other party facilitates contact between groups that may live in parallel cultural environments. They may have an opportunity to compare received histories, media narratives and lived experiences.
Neutral ground separated from cultural and political pressure
Analyzing the root causes of conflict is always difficult. Trying to do so when you're surrounded by cultural or political factors (schools, politicians, family members) can be even more so. A neutral space can help in that it creates a safe environment to challenge one's own assumptions, make mistakes and broaden one's understanding of a given conflict.
New ways of interacting
with the other side
By having continuous, non-stop exposure to people on the other side of a conflict, people can start to see each other as people and not merely as "the Other."
Long-term engagement for sustainable cultural transformation
By originally hosting three-month seminars in Lillehammer, participants developed strong friendships across religious, cultural and ethnic lines, allowing for the development of local nodes for change when they returned home. This was the start of the Nansen Dialogue Network.
Some continued reflections by Steinar:

The participants started to come from Zagreb, Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Mostar, Podgorica, Priština, Belgrade, and Skopje. Through sitting together in Lillehammer it was rather easy to discover how nationalistic propaganda operated in all previous republics. Since the initial seminar lasted for three months, the participants had plenty of time to compare notes. They lived together in a very compact environment with educational facilities, the dining hall and the dormitory within a few square meters. The Academy was located in a rather small and boring town with most of the local people staying in their homes. There was really nowhere to hide. Through listening to each other, it became obvious how their own nationalistic media had given a one-sided propaganda, and particularly not been informing them of (all) the atrocities committed by their own people against the Others.

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".

I have over the years seldom experienced that the participants changed their fundamental political beliefs or their political goals, but I have often seen that they change their perception of "the other". Their understanding of the world was simply becoming more inclusive. As Dragoslav Djurasković, Kosovo expressed it in an interview on Redaksjon 21, NRK in October 1998:

"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."

In our invitation to the seminars in Norway we deliberately stressed that these seminars were not negotiations. Although not knowing it at the time, we developed a mode of communication different from debate and negotiations. When consulting the literature at a later time, we saw that our experience is far from unique – rather it fits with how others describe the same processes.

"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."
The ski jump during the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. The ski jump is one of the locations visited by dialogue and summer school participants during each gathering.
Lillehammer Today
Eventually the three-month seminars in Lillehammer led way to three-day workshops located in the Balkans themselves. A more or less 'neutral' space was found in the Montenegrin town of Herceg Novi, where members of different ethnic groups would meet (especially Kosovar Serbs and Albanians in the leadup to the 1999 war, as documented in the film Reunion).

But while much of the dialogue work has naturally returned to the Balkans, Lillehammer remains a space for training dialogue facilitators from around the world. These weeklong sessions consolidate dialogue and mediation skills and offer an opportunity to become immersed in the Nansen Dialogue method. But while we were there for the summer school, there was another large-scale event taking place.

The Lillehammer Dialogue City festival is a new initiative spearheaded by the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue. It brought together a number of dialogue facilitators from around the world to discuss themes as varied as inclusion, trust-building, post-conflict reconstruction, anticipating future conflicts and more.

They took the form of panel discussions centered around a theme, with facilitation being provided by a member of the NCPD. A powerful element of these discussions were the Fishbowl Dialogues.
The Fishbowl
Panel discussions can be a powerful way for experienced practitioners to share their thoughts and experience. By inviting three experts and framing their presentations as a conversation, the audience gets to see a variety of approaches to a single issue. But, in most cases, there's very little input from the audience.

Agency and participation are major keywords in peace & conflict studies right now. There is a lot of research going into how to include a diversity of voices (particularly those who have histories of marginalization or exclusion) in the conversation, but many structures and conventions have remained the same. Even the format of most panels (a long table at the front, a large audience in front of them) teaches audiences to be passive observers or consumers of the process. The fishbowl structure seeks to challenge that.

First, the panelists are arranged in a circle in the middle of the room, with the audience sitting around them. Two or three chairs among the panelists are left empty, and this is where the innovation comes in. During the question period, participants in the audience are encouraged to approach the central podium and sit down with the panelists. They ask their questions from a position of equality with the speakers, and are able to engage in discussion.
Another aspect of the Dialogue City festivities were music, art and performances. According to Steinar:

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.

This is just as important for dialogue students as it is for participants. There's a lot of theory involved in understanding how constructive conversations work, and this is compounded by the kinds of stories heard from the speakers in the Fishbowls. Kidnappings in Colombia. Displacees in Iraq. Broken communities in Bosnia. Knowing when to take a break to watch a troupe of elderly Norwegian singers is sometimes a matter of self-care and mental health.

One of the performers during our week there was a young man who recorded an album of covers. These covers were all censored or repressed in one way or another. As a number of our participants were from Russia (myself, temporarily, in that number), we were taken somewhat aback by his cover of Pussy Riot's "Punk Prayer." What started life as an angry anthem (which, after being performed in a major Moscow church, got the singers arrested for up to two years) became an indie ballad that was in turns both strange and strangely welcome. One more aspect of the space itself being used to engage in conflicts that, for some of us, are rather close to home.

Prayers crawl towards the cross,
golden marks upon their frocks.
Freedom's ghost has left these lands.
Help us if you can!

KGB have turned to saints.
Gay parades sent off in chains.
Blessed limousines congest the streets
to hail their saint-in-chief.

Holy Mary, drive Putin away.
Drive away this darkness from your halls.
Drive away the ungodly souls.
Our Lady tear the eagle off your walls.

Father Gundyayev pays back
from his bag of holy crap:
'Woman, keep quiet and love your man
your fate and fatherland!'

Holy Mary, be a feminist.
Pray not for the mighty but the meek.
Drive away the lies that they speak.
Our lady, hear our prayer unto thee.

Gundy never cared for God.
All that dickhead wants is power.
Mary, your belt should bring us hope
now it's used as rope.

Damn their lies, deliver us!
Pry the copper from the cross!
Mary, our hands are tied in prayer.
Help us if you're there!

Holy Mary, drive Putin away.
Drive away this darkness from your halls.
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.