Effectiveness in Dialogue for Conflict Transformation

This column highlights some key insights from our third “Making Dialogue Effective” panel discussion, with conflict transformation experts Dr Diana Francis and Dr Marwan Darweish. The ‘transformation’ approach recognises conflict as a potential catalyst for positive change, when it can be dealt with creatively. A comprehensive approach, it seeks to engage and transform attitudes, relationships, discourses, sometimes even social structures, rather than simply managing the destructive effects of conflict. The insights of conflict transformation specialists on dialogue consequently have particular relevance to those working in community dialogue in non-conflict situations, whose primary concerns are attitudes, relationships and discourses.

Previous panel discussions had highlighted the intrinsic value of dialogue, as an inherently transformative, essential human function. Diana Francis noted that while it may be right to recognise dialogue’s intrinsic value, facilitators in conflict situations want more from it too; they want it to have a positive outcome in relation to the conflict. Further, dialogue in conflict situations, Marwan Darweish suggested, must be constantly put in the context of this purpose if they are to have an effect on the conditions of injustice which led to conflict. When participants shy away from the difficult issues which divide them, the roots of hostility and violence are left undisturbed.

Prospective dialogue participants and facilitators in situations of conflict face particular challenges. To even begin non-aggressive communication represents a considerable achievement in a situation where two groups generally see each other as the enemy, and blame each other for numerous very painful events. Further, conflict situations typically involve major disparities of power, and the disempowered group may be unwilling to talk peacefully with the other group for fear of normalising an unbearable situation. Marwan Darweish cited a case in which, for this reason, it was not possible to organise a face-to-face Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. However, both parties were willing to work for change in their own communities, and wanted to hear about the efforts of the other group through an independent mediator. This indirect form of dialogue opened a space for a new discourse and further dialogue. Diana Francis noted that often, in a situation of entrenched hostility, there will be ‘soft edges’, a few people on each side who want to do something. They provide a starting point. In tense conflict situations facilitators have to be creative and seek out the beginnings of dialogue.

Where face-to-face dialogue can be achieved in the context of conflict, there are inevitably difficulties. Emotions run high and may be explosive. It is difficult to avoid a bitter exchange of stories of suffering, and of blame. Then, there is a risk that the achievements of dialogue at one level of society will be undermined because they are unconnected to other levels – something that those working in community dialogue can relate to.

Power relationships from outside the dialogue space may be uncomfortably replicated within it, for instance, through awareness that one group and not the other has been in a position to fund the project. Sometimes external power relationships are reversed; participants from a cultural or ethnic group which has persecuted the group to which the others belong are constantly on the back foot, even if they themselves have opposed that persecution.

To manage such dialogues, facilitators work to achieve a set of conditions in which, despite the various obstacles, a constructive dialogue can take place. Diana Francis listed some key conditions. An assurance of physical safety is essential, as is freedom from time pressure. It is very important to hold the dialogue on neutral ground, where none of the participants will feel that the other immediately has the upper hand. Marwan Darweish referred to an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue which was held in a kibbutz; for the first day discussion was limited to the question of why there was water for irrigation in the kibbutz but no drinking water on the West Bank. Community dialogue organisers need to consider ownership of space too; even in non-conflict situations participants may feel inhibited by feeling that they are guests in another group’s space.

Equality of representation is another important condition, which is again worth considering in community dialogue. Participants may feel less at ease if the numbers, or the level of education/experience of the groups, are very uneven. It is also important to have an agreed purpose and clear protocol, so that everyone consents to the process and knows what is expected of them.

Finally, an appropriate facilitator, with permission and intention to ‘police’ the agreed process, is essential. Marwan Darweish noted that it is sometimes crucial to have an impartial facilitator, who can provide reflections without being seen to speak for one or other party. The facilitator can provide a model of calm, respectful engagement. As Diana Francis noted, he/she has a crucial role to play in providing psychological safety, giving people confidence that they will not be trampled over or ignored and that the proceedings will not be allowed to deteriorate.

*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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