Effectiveness in Dialogue at the Grassroots: Seeking the Personal and the Genuine

The second panel discussion of our “Making Dialogue Effective” series focused on how dialogue can reach beyond the superficial level of “meeting and greeting”. How can we make dialogue a genuine interpersonal encounter which deepens mutual understanding and has the potential to transform relationships? Our panel consisted of Imam Dr Abduljalil Sajid, Storyteller Sarah Perceval and Samuel Klein, Co-Director of the Coexistence Trust.

A lot of the discussion was, in one way or another, about being creative, and about being brave. Creativity and courage, in a range of contexts, can break down the barriers to real interpersonal encounters.

Stories shared by our panellists demonstrated the impact that the courage and initiative of one or two individuals can have on the quality of relationships within their local community. Sarah Perceval told how she and a friend had a vision of living on a street where people knew each other, trusted each other and did not meet only in the event of a plumbing problem. They went out, somewhat nervously, to knock on the door of every house in the street. When they introduced themselves by saying “Hello, we’re your neighbours”, they were generally warmly received. Now people meet for neighbours’ brunches, and are invited to more spiritually based gatherings which provide a refuge of prayer and peace.

Imam Sajid and his wife, new to London in the 1970’s, faced constant racist and Islamophobic abuse. When they moved to Brighton, they decided to take a proactive approach to their new community. They wrote to all their neighbours, introducing themselves and inviting them to tea. Within three months they had met and befriended everybody. Now their grandchildren are friends with their neighbours’ grandchildren.

What incredible transformations these courageous personal decisions can bring!

Such personal initiatives, perhaps, have something of a head start in the search for genuine dialogue. When an individual plucks up the courage to approach a neighbour, not knowing what their reaction will be, the encounter naturally begins in a personal, intimate space. The individual who opens herself up and puts herself in a vulnerable position invites an open, genuine response.

When we engage in dialogue in an organisational setting, more reflection is sometimes required to ensure that genuine dialogue can take place. Samuel Klein noted that formal habits associated with organisations can sometimes subtly distance us from one another. Sometimes choosing more casual clothing or deciding not to sit behind tables can remove a psychological barrier to personal encounters. We need to be self-aware, considering the messages that we send before even opening our mouths and considering how we can create an appropriate space for dialogue.

Samuel Klein compared two dialogue meetings that he had recently attended. One meeting started with everybody introducing themselves. Essentially, each person summarised their CV. Information was exchanged but little genuine dialogue occurred. At the other meeting, participants were asked to get into pairs and look at each other in silence for one minute. Much more was accomplished. Real personal connections were established through this creative approach which recognised how much communication can occur in silence. People were asked to have the courage to look one another in the eye as individual people, rather than looking at their notes and presenting themselves as professionals. If we try to achieve dialogue in an organisational context, we need to constantly consider what kind of communication we are facilitating and to explore different tools for improving the quality of that communication.

Story is a valuable tool. In narrative mediation, an approach to conflict resolution proposed by John Winslade and Gerald Monk, participants are invited to recognise that they have a preconceived story about the other parties, and to tell that story. As the stories are told, the orthodoxies of participants’ conceptions of the other are identified and can be challenged. If participants maintain an attitude of respect towards the others for having the courage to turn up, and if a skilled facilitator can create a space in which people feel able to speak, this can be a powerful process. Samuel Klein, discussing the merits of the approach, noted that in dialogue it is valuable to have the stories we tell about each other on the table so that we can see them for what they are, and realise that they are malleable.

Of course, different approaches to dialogue may be suited to different contexts. Imam Sajid highlighted the need for well-researched, civil, persistent dialogue with the media to challenge damaging misrepresentations of particular groups. Sarah Perceval made the important observation that getting together to have some fun is as valid a form of dialogue as any.

Sometimes dialogue participants differ in their motivations and in the level of interaction in which they are prepared to engage, just as a young teacher may differ from his pupils on the purpose and priorities of their lessons (Samuel Klein). Fitting the approach to the situation, and negotiating a form of worthwhile dialogue in which all are prepared to participate is part of the creative work dialogue facilitation.

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Frances Sleap

Frances Sleap

Author, Former Research Fellow at Dialogue Society

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