“The origin of the word “dialogue” is Greek and its two parts translate as ‘through words.’ How much better it is to know each other by words than with our swords. Dialogue is an art that teaches us to listen deeply, speak openly, and discover our common ground. Through structured conversations, trust and thoughtfulness build slowly and steadily. Negative stereotypes of the “other” dissolve, to be replaced by mutual understanding and commitments to a shared future.”
Dr. Paula Green, Founder, Karuna Center for Peacebuilding
When I became a professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont, I began directing youth programs for high school and college students from communities in conflict around the world. We started out bringing together Soviet (the next year they were just Russian!) and American teens, then Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland, and Jews and Arabs from Israel. Now, in the context of World Learning’s Youth Peacebuilding and Leadership Programs (YPLP), we work with hundreds of students each year from countries like Iraq, India/ Pakistan, Libya/Egypt/Tunisia, Burma, Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia, Yemen, Liberia, Bangladesh, Uganda, Mexico, and a very multi- ethnic England.
Structured dialogue has grown to become a key component of all our youth programs, with appropriate processes and topics tailored to meet the needs of each group. Despite all the fun outdoor activities in our programs, participants often name dialogue as their favorite time. Dialogue sessions create a structured opportunity and safe context to share openly and honestly, thoughts and feelings, about issues of common concern. Dialogue sessions are part of a holistic approach to building empowerment in youth: a capacity to act in response to problems facing young people around the world.
The YPLP dialogue format emerged from the first dialogue groups in our Cypriot Youth Camps and Conflict Resolution Workshops, which ran from 1996 to 2013. In the earliest programs, no participant from the Greek or Turkish communities had ever met someone from the other side of a divided island, split in two by barbed wire and United Nations peacekeepers since 1974.
Participants would do outdoor and social activities to build friendships, including spending a day on a ropes course where team challenge activities helped to build trust. Their lives were literally in the hands of peers from the other community, as their former “enemy” was keeping them safe by belaying them while they climbed up the high ropes course elements.
In a dialogue series for peacebuilding there are parallels with the sequence of approaches on a ropes course: we open with “lower” risk activities and safer topics before moving “up” to scarier, riskier issues of conflict, enemy images, and divided, violent histories. We start by building communication skills, such as active listening and authentic expression. As safety builds, friendships deepen, forging bonds that can sustain difficult dialogue about the political conflict back home.
We make clear before sessions begin that the goal of dialogue is to increase understanding and empathy, as opposed to the goal of debate, which is winning or convincing the other side that your position is right. In dialogue, students support each other emotionally and intellectually, just as they to do on a ropes course.
A central purpose of active participation in dialogue is to empower young people to speak their mind, find their voice, and be heard. Dialogue encourages genuine communication: too rare an occurrence in young people’s lives. Participants can get beneath the surface of everyday conversations and relate in meaningful ways, to discuss what young people care about in the safe context of a small group.
Participants explore similarities and differences both simple and significant, paying attention to perspectives and needs that are different from their own. Stereotypes can be overcome, and divergent political views understood, without arguing about who is right or wrong.
We explore common issues and engage more deeply than usual, building mutual understanding and compassion through personal stories. Sometimes there are tears. Yet these are not therapy groups where more is shared than feels comfortable. In hundreds of youth dialogue sessions, we have found that “sweet spot” of connecting around topics that speakers and listeners care about, but are not too personal or painful to be shared among new friends. This is a place of interpersonal, cross- cultural, and self discovery.
You may be reading this, thinking “I’m not so sure I want to sit in a group and risk sharing my point of view with people I don’t know. I may have to defend my point of view, or be ignored when I share something important — personally or about a group identity I share. On the other hand, I do feel good when I am heard and respected by others.”
Dialogue consists of principles, structures, and activities that can help deepen the participant experience. Sharing connections and contrasts can make us feel more optimistic about this troubled world. What makes dialogue worthwhile is what I discover: about you and me and us. And the process can be engaging and fun. These sessions do not need to seek conflict resolution or trauma healing. Facilitated dialogue is a starting towards communicating openly and honestly about issues that we really care about.
Dialogue seeks to increase understanding and empathy, and:
- To encourage genuine communication, beneath the surface of everyday conversations.
- To create a safe and structured context to openly share thoughts and feelings.
- To allow participants to find their voice and to feel empowered to speak their mind.
- To understand and appreciate our similarities and differences.
WHAT DIALOGUE IS NOT:
- Dialogue is not a debate—no one tries to win.
- Dialogue is not an abstract, analytical discussion—no one shows off how much they know.
- Dialogue is not a therapy group or an encounter group—those are for specialists.
- Dialogue is not a negotiation or mediation—the goal is to understand each other better, not to reach an agreement.
- Dialogue is not too deep or too shallow—we aim to find a “sweet spot” of sharing.
MANAGING THE PROCESS:
To Manage a Positive, Successful Dialogue:
- Use icebreaker or teambuilding activities to develop basic relationships and trust.
- Practice communication skills—effective listening and honest speaking.
- Create a safe space and inclusive atmosphere.
- Develop constructive behaviors and attitudes, then move into deeper, more challenging dialogue.
- Encourage full and appropriate participation from all participants.
WE COULD CALL THESE STEPS THE 5 B’s:
- Break the Ice –
Meet others with warm up activities: Open up relationships between participants by doing a group activity that includes some physical movement and allows for a bit
of sharing, to get familiar with each other. Get up to play before you sit down to talk!
- Build Communications Skills –
Train participants in basic speaking and listening: Review the importance of listening to each other, and speaking openly and honestly. People understand intuitively what good listening is and why it is important to show each other that we are listening. Speak for yourself, rather than repeating broad opinions or arguing for the sake of arguing.
- Bring People Together –
Set up a safe and comfortable physical space: Have participants sit in a clear, fairly close circle, so they can all see and hear each other.
- Brainstorm Group Norms –
Establish positive group attitudes and behaviors: Set up a few guidelines for respectful participation, such as valuing everyone’s participation, and not interrupting. This can help ensure a positive dialogue experience for all. Write the norms on a large sheet of paper as participants suggest them, then refer to them as needed.
- Balance Participation –
Monitor who speaks and how often: Manage the appropriateness and intensity of what is said. Aim for a balanced discussion that is engaging while not too intense for all participants. Everyone gets a chance to be involved.
We’ve looked in greater detail at managing the process—“the HOW.” Now, let’s look at “the WHAT.”
STRUCTURING THE CONTENT:
As a facilitator, you’ll need to come into the first session with a clear sense of the issues that are relevant and important to this specific group. That’s why you are there, and why the group has gathered. Now that you understand how to manage the process, you’re ready to guide them toward choosing the topics that genuinely matter to them.
Selecting Appropriate Topics – (Consider Ahead of Time):
- What current issues are confronting this community?
- What do participants want to discuss?
- Will a topic deepen mutual understanding by analyzing issues collaboratively?
- What are participants ready to discuss?
- What is an appropriate level of risk?
- Might a topic bring up unmanageable conflict leading to argument or anger, or invoke a history of trauma leading to overwhelming emotions?
You may choose and plan the topics ahead of a session or series, or guide the group into selecting appropriate topics for them during the initial session.
I hope you feel the enthusiasm after a dialogue session where participants learned about each other and themselves, sharing diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. I hope you find dialogue an engaging and personal way to address controversial issues. As you discover what others think, perhaps you will discover more of your own voice as well. I believe you’ll enjoy getting to know each other in this constructive way.
These skills for effectively facilitating dialogue can also be applied in less structured discussions, though a clear structure is always useful, for working with youth in particular. In other group situations, you will notice how the same facilitation skills and awareness can be applied:
Are you listening actively?
Are you speaking authentically?
Are you mindful of how speakers are being included or excluded?
Are there spoken or unspoken norms in the group?
With attentiveness and facilitation skills you can subtly and compassionately influence a group; you can contribute to a more successful experience for all.