Dialogue approach

Letting Go Of The 'Right' Answers

There's a 'right' kind of question when it comes to dialogue.
The same can't always be said about answers.
What do dialogue practitions mean when they warn against having the 'right' answers?

And how can we balance the search for a common truth with the need to be aware of the biases and narratives
sometimes hidden within our positions?
Steinar Bryn, a dialogue facilitator at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD), where we're participating in a summer school on dialogue practices, warns us against leaning too much on the 'right' answers. He describes these as the answers that come immediately to mind when faced with complex questions. The ones that, when the need arises, we know well enough to repeat word for word:

This needs to be promoted, that needs to be resisted. If we let this happen, it will lead to that.

Statements and beliefs like these often express facts, but they can also speak to something important about the way we see the world. For many of us they're the foundation of our belief systems, identities, concepts of justice or even our moral cores.

So why would this be something to warn us against? These amount to our beliefs, our philosophy, even our faith in how the world works. When someone tells us to be suspicious of our answers, it can feel like they're asking us to betray what we believe to be true. Is having a belief system detrimental to participating in a dialogue process?

Certainly not. What Steinar and the Nansen team are asking us to be aware of is how our answers, and our worldviews, can shape emerging beliefs about specific groups of people. When conflict intensifies, for example, a certain type of answer tends to become popular: these kinds of people do these kinds of things. Why? Because. Full stop.

Insert whatever group you like (or, rather, don't like). Migrants. Imperialists. Euroskeptics. People of colour. Evangelicals. Feminists. Guns-rights advocates. Russians. Muslims. Populists.

In times of social change or instability, especially when different groups start looking at each other with suspicion, certain answers to questions about the other side start being seen as the 'right' answer to give – challenging these preconceptions can accordingly be seen as betraying or selling out the people on your own side. Consequently, it can become difficult to step back to analyse to what extent our answers actually reflect the world we live in.

These 'right' answers can start defining our community's approach to society, history and politics. When this happens at a large enough scale, we start producing larger narratives that can affect our ability to see the humanity of the other side.
Stories, Narratives and Truth
Narratives are stories we use, often in groups, to explain why some things happen and others don't. Depending on the context, they can be passed on through fairy tales, movies, political campaigns or inside jokes. They're often a source of comfort, even if they tell us there are certain enemies that are out to get us and need to be resisted. This last bit may seem paradoxical, but it's because enemy-narratives still communicate to us what our place in the world is, who our friends are, and what our identity looks like.

On a cognitive level, they're incredibly useful because they save us the energy we'd otherwise constantly have to spend justifying who we are and why we do what we do. That, and they're effective at passing on (or strengthening) our worldviews and value systems.

But these benefits come with a major drawback: even when they tell us something true about the world, they can still produce blind spots. This is only human – focusing your vision can make it hard to notice (or even accept) things that exist on the peripheries. Which means that sooner or later we'll come into contact with stories we never saw coming. This can be a deeply enriching experience, but it can also feel threatening.

The narratives we find intimidating are usually the ones that conflict with our sense of how the world works. Because our stories are often connected to our identities, a challenge can feel like a personal or existential attack. When this is the case, seriously considering a new point of view can be profoundly destabilizing. We might find ourselves getting angry, or confused, or frustrated that we have to explain something that's obvious (to us). Sometimes we might not even know how to react.

That doesn't mean that a given set of narratives are necessarily illegitimate or wrong. They can be built on facts and solid evidence. On a psychological level, we might go crazy without them. Admitting that we may hold to a specific narrative doesn't imply that what we believe isn't true. It can be helpful to think of the facts as something beyond ourselves that we can look at, with our narratives being the glasses that impact how we see them.

Being aware of our narratives means trying to understand the lenses through which we see the world. Working to identify our narratives means that, if we want to have a clearer picture of the world and of each other (one of the stated goals of dialogue), we need to remain open to other, potentially threatening points of view.

There are a number of reasons why this can be intensely difficult. Certain groups may be manipulative or mean to do real harm, and opening yourself to their narratives carries personal risk. People can challenge your narratives with the explicit purpose of getting you to doubt your sanity or your grip on the world – this is known as gaslighting.

Even in the absence of malice, challenging our narratives can create profound tension inside ourselves or the communities we live in. It can be costly to remain present to that tension. Steinar calls this process sitting in the fire, and says that one of the traits of a skilled facilitator is the ability to help people feel secure enough to be present to this tension. No simple feat.

This is probably one of the most important components of dialogue, and it requires an experienced (and wise) facilitator. Generating space for this kind of vulnerability in a dialogue encounter can make or break the whole process. It's one of the key elements in helping participants explore options other than the 'right' answers they're used to giving in the context of their communities back home. Our week-long exercise of asking questions was an attempt to explore just that.
Finding Answers
A few days ago we were divided into groups based on where we live or are based: Norway, the Balkans, the United States, Russia, Latin America, Ukraine and Hawaii (our Hawaiian participants asked to be considered a separate cultural zone). We were asked to think of six questions, one for each of the others. As building consensus is a big part of dialogue, the questions had to be reached unanimously. Once we finalized our list, we gathered back together to ask them before returning to our small groups to come up with responses. We were encouraged to think of answers that were true rather than ones that felt immediately 'right.'

For many of us, the answers we gave didn't end up provoking the narrative challenge described above. A lot of the presentations, especially from the Norwegian, Latin American and Hawaiian groups, were informational. Few of us listening were experts in any of those regions, much less invested enough to have narratives that were in major need of challenging.

The Russian group admitted to skewing more liberal than the rest of the country, meaning that they were more likely to share our narratives than resist them. Questions for the Balkan group often involved the narratives we had about the region's dividedness. We asked questions that highlighted histories of ethnic conflict: how did you reach consensus in your group? Is it difficult working with people from other Balkan countries? What does it feel like?

"We don't hate each other," they rolled their eyes. "We really don't." They grabbed each others' hands and held them in a chain above their heads.

Hearing from Ukraine and the United States, though, was very different.
Of all the regions represented, Ukraine had the most active armed conflict. In the spring of 2014, the Crimean penninsula (until that point controlled by the Ukrainian government) was annexed by the Russian Federation. This was followed by Russian-supported separatist activity in two eastern, Russian-bordering regions that led to the unrecognized breakaway of the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainian government (and most of the world) condemned the actions, and local troops were sent to the east in response. The contact line was pushed further into separatist-controlled territory, but even with official peacemaking attempts (particularly the Minsk Agreements) the conflict came to a stalemate. Nearly 13,000 people have been killed as of June 2018 (when the summer school took place), with over a million displaced.

Two of the five Ukrainian participants at the summer school were from Donetsk region, which today is still a hotspot in the conflict. The other three came from Kyiv and Lviv, major cities located in central and western Ukraine. They shared how they were raised with different ideas of what the right answers were and that, when the conflict broke out, these divisions became even more obvious.

While they were sharing, two things became increasingly clear.

First, there was a profound dissonance inside the group, one they were still working through. This is more than understandable – the questions we asked them were about hot-button issues like language rights, national unity, attitudes towards Russia, what vision of peace would be acceptable and so on.

Working with different narratives is hard enough as it is, especially when you grow up in communities that offer conflicting answers. Having an ongoing hybrid war only throws propaganda, trauma and centuries of historical baggage into the picture. They had every right to not have a tidy answer. In a way not having a tidy answer is a victory, if a bitter one.

Sitting in the audience, as a participant with limited experience of the Ukrainian context, I didn't have enough background to understand what questions were the hardest for them to answer. I haven't lived through their experiences. The country I was born in is not at war. The other participants and I sat watching, rather passively, and whatever interpretations that may have occured to us were far less important than the process they were very much still living through. There could be very real consequences in their home communities to challenging the narratives that are promoted there.

When Steinar shared about his experience facilitating dialogue in the Balkans, which were themselves the epicenter of a bloody war, he focused on how these dissonances can emerge when representatives of different regions gather. There can be a lack of trust between people in the group, or a sense that the dialogue process is artificial or useless or doesn't meet the actual needs of the people present. Maybe people don't want to talk. Maybe they want to stay angry and distant – they might need that. Maybe there's a prior need for healing that hasn't been addressed.

That, and there's the constant risk that the proces can trigger unresolved traumas. Or that the exercises and terminology are stale, unfamiliar or alienating. There might be reputations to be protected (at least in public). Or a sense of betrayal when people we expect to be allies give answers that we find repulsive or problematic. There can also be resentment when foreigners come in with funding and a mandate to solve local problems on a timeline set by outsiders. Maybe people don't care enough to play nice.

What a lot of this comes down to is that we hold onto our answers because there are stakes involved. The issues aren't abstract, or something you can chat about over tea. Your response to certain questions can impact the stability of a state, the economy's functionality, your mental health, your children's future or, in some cases, whether or not you'll be good at staying alive.

There's a persistent dilemma involved here:
...holding too tightly to our 'right' answers can entrench conflicts and make it harder to find sustainable solutions. A readiness (and felt need) to confront our narratives is key to both dialogue and to solving deep-seated disputes.
...people sometimes cling to 'right' answers and narratives because they make the world managable, livable or safe. In the worst cases, letting them go can lead to emotional, physical, social or political suffering.
...challenging a given set of narratives, interpretations or answers, especially without spending time to understand the context involved, can feel like an attack or violation. This is often the case when an attempt to improve a situation is blind to the needs of the community in question. It can make the situation worse and lower the chances that both parties will want to engage in future attempts at dialogue.
I don't know to what extent our Ukrainian group was dealing with these factors. I hope as little as they could get away with.

Second, there was something going on that had less to do with the Ukrainians than what was generally happening in the room.

We were here for a training, not for an official dialogue session. This means there wasn't the time or the context to make space for the deep, human engagement necessary for processing these kinds of questions (if processing them was even what the participants wanted or needed). It requires preparations we didn't make, and a readiness that I'm not sure existed. Not to mention how there might have been trauma or other kinds of emotional baggage in the room. The atmosphere was far from the kind that would be necessary for all this to happen, and it might not be fair or responsible to push people into such a process before they're ready and prepared. Otherwise they're likely to fight or produce quick, easy answers that don't engage as deeply with the situation.

Another issue is that there were five people on a stage in front of two dozen viewers. We were watching them as observers, and it's hard for anyone to do this kind of thing in front of an audience that doesn't have a full grasp of the stakes involved. There's a risk of the process becoming a performance (for us or for themselves), and people might not feel comfortable being so vulnerable in front of a large group. No one wants their issues treated like a show.

So there was a limit to how much could be done in the room that day. Some people chose to engage and to share, others chose to be silent and keep the peace. Steinar facilitated while keeping in mind the needs of the participants on stage as well as our needs as a group. It's not easy, and dialogue rarely occurs even in spaces that've been prepared long in advance.

Those of us paying attention were reminded that this isn't simple. That there are stakes involved, and that challenging our narratives can be dangerous and disruptive. That those feelings don't necessarily go away when you leave the hot seat. That to advocate for engagement without respect for the people involved, without engaging deeply with their context and its complexities, is like being a tourist in a conflict zone.

For those of us sitting in the audience, the Ukrainian process was something we could only engage with as distant (though sympathetic) observers. The American process, however, couldn't have been more different.
We had a number of undergraduate students from the United States as part of the Peace Scholar program. Sixteen students, a pair each from eight universities, were given scholarships for peace & conflict studies programs here at Nansen and later at the University of Oslo's international summer school (where others from our group went on to study peace research). Since the two Hawaiian participants asked to be engaged with as a separate cultural group, the fourteen remaining students formed a circle with the rest of us to share their answers to questions involving immigration, race and, of course, Donald Trump.

Given the group's larger size, it took time for all the Americans to give a bit of input. Some were more eager to share than others, and the quieter ones were encouraged to speak up if they had something to contribute. There was one young man who was more silent than the rest, and when prompted to speak he took a number of pauses before, as diplomatically as possible, suggesting that certain narratives that we have about Trump voters might not be entirely accurate.

The temperature in the room changed dramatically.

As compared to the Ukrainian process, all of us had a stake involved here. This wasn't a spat limited to a few politicians bickering half a world away: what was on the line here was the liberal project itself. What had once been considered the 'end of history,' an inevitable victory of globalized, progressive politics, had recently been upended, leaving many of us unsure (or even afraid) of what would happen next.

Depending on your point of view, the responses most of the participants gave to the young man were expressions of passion or hostility, of personal empowerment or bullying, and the reality is that it was all of those things at once. It was a genuine response to someone who suggested a narrative that was incompatible with the dominant one in the room, and many felt that, if it was entertained, it would prove to be an existential threat. Dialogue, one could argue, could be genuinely put aside in favour of defending what we feel was right.

But what about migrants?

Don't you know what happens to black people in Trump's America?

How could you even think something like that?

It was only after this last question that Steinar intervened. This was the opposite of what he called the 'right' kind of question, ones that open space for genuine curiousity, connection and mutual understanding. The questions we were asking were laced through with our own narratives, eliminating the opportunity to give an answer that might shift the way we approach the question. It closed rather than opened doors.

And so we returned to the paradox mentioned above: engaging in dialogue requires us to step back from our 'right' answers and be open to other stories, to a common truth that might be broader than we realize. But this can still feel like ignoring what's moral in the world, or like abetting exploitation and abuse. It's obvious that challenging our narratives is necessary if we want dialogue to happen – the main question, though, is whether or not dialogue's the thing we need most right now. For many in the room, dialogue was less important than defending what they felt or believed to be true and just.

This is where a profound tension comes in. We can say that, yes, choosing against having dialogue can help us protect the things that urgently need protecting (an idea, a truth, marginalized groups, our own mental health). But then we'll never know if there are legitimate needs on the other side, or if there are narratives clouding our field of vision. And, if we really do have significant blind spots, we risk bulldozing over other people in the name of protecting groups, needs, truths or worldviews that are important to us. It's a dilemma we can't always get around.

Other things that made that moment complicated: our relative newness to dialogue and how it works. Or Steinar, being a white man, encouraging women of colour to engage with people who approach issues of race differently. Or the presence (and lived experience) of members of the trans and black communities. The presence (and lived experience) of people who felt alienated by coastal millenials. The question of whether domestic or foreign policy is more important when it comes to electing a country's leader. How to evaluate the best worst choice. Also: two of the Peace Scholar donors were present. Not to mention a room of peers, watching. Very active facilitation is necessary to help people be vulnerable and sincere in this kind of situation.

If there's one thing we can take away from this, it's the reality that people caught in the thick of these questions don't have it easy. We're the ones in the middle of it now, but later on we might be the facilitators looking at things from the side. Knowing how it feels to be deeply, deeply confronted can help us have empathy for (and mercy on) people who can't engage with things detachedly. We're stuck at an intersection with a very human helplessness.

But again, we're not here to find (or push people into) an easy answer. Not every question is resolved after a couple hours of heated discussion. Certain people hug certain other people in the end. Some leave with different questions, others leave more deeply convicted of their own answers. More than a few need space to collect themselves.

If you're in dialogue for the long haul, you have to be ready to sit in the fire. You have to be ready for others to accuse you of giving malicious actors a voice, of downplaying the truth, of legitimizing dangerous points of view. You have to be ready to ask people to set aside the feeling of danger, panic or anxiety they might have, of creating a space where that's a realistic ask. Because without helping people enter into that kind of space, without giving them support in a process that's, really, quite threatening, you're being an irresponsible facilitator. When you work with people on this level, you're working with a profound kind of vulnerability.

But that's part of the job.
It's very easy, especially when you're talking about peacebuilding and development, or the donors that fund both, to start thinking of what happens next. But part of the process is being present to what's happening now, not pushing things forward in the name of an agenda or timeline or what have you. But then things don't often get funded without agendas, timelines or deliverables, so you have to find a way to report back somehow. The system is imperfect.

But regardless of said imperfections, they still allow for moments like what we shared back then. For space that allows for engagement, even if only for a while. And even this is a profound kind of progress. What happens in a meeting, even if it's not connected to anything that happens before or later, has value and brings meaning to the people in the room.

That said, dialogue processes can be a profound part of the greater peacebuildling agenda. And the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue's sustained work in the Balkans, which is the subject of the next post, shows exactly how that can work.
Josh Nadeau is a writer and dialogue practitioner. In June 2018 he participated in the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue summer school.