Effectiveness in Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue: Can it be defined or measured? Part 1

This column is the first in a series exploring some key insights emerging from the Dialogue Society’s “Making Dialogue Effective” panel discussion series. The discussions brought together dialogue professionals, religious leaders, conflict resolution specialists, academics and other professionals with a wealth of relevant experience.

Through the series the Dialogue Society sought to respond to critical questions sometimes raised about dialogue by sceptical friends. They have asked whether dialogue is not too theological and theoretical, too far removed from everyday realities. They have asked if it extends beyond the tea-fuelled self-congratulation of a few liberal religious believers. The core of much of their questioning is this: does dialogue have any real social effects, and could any such effects be augmented? In the panel discussion series we sought to take these questions seriously, exploring them through a dialogue with others professionally engaged in relevant projects. Through this dialogue we hoped to critically examine our own work and identify ways in which it could be improved.

The first discussion brought together Dr Ute Kelly of the University of Bradford, Mehri Niknam MA, MBE of the Joseph Interfaith Foundation, Simon Keyes of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace and Dr Andrew Smith of the Scripture Union’s Youth Encounter project. The discussion explored some contentious questions. Our panellists examined how useful managerial language of “effectiveness” and “measuring” was in the context of interfaith/intercultural dialogue. To comprehend this crucial issue we must first clarify what this dialogue is.

Participants brought different definitions to the table. They fall into two groups. The first covers formal definitions of dialogue, those truest to its etymological meaning of “finding meaning through words” (Simon Keyes). David Bohm, William Isaacs and Martin Buber were cited as important thinkers about the philosophical nature of dialogue. Also Daniel Yankelovich, who characterises dialogue as speaking and listening under three conditions: equality (or at least suspension, as far as humanly possible, of inequality and coercive influences); listening with empathy in order to understand, and bringing assumptions out into the open (Ute Kelly). Interfaith/intercultural dialogue in these terms is such dialogue among participants of different faiths/cultures.

Andrew Smith noted that by so precise a definition Youth Encounter project may not have done any dialogue in the last ten years! Certainly various Dialogue Society projects fall outside such a definition. Both are interfaith/intercultural dialogue on an expanded definition along these lines: “a range of activities through which people of different social, cultural and religious groups come together for meaningful interaction and exchange.” Considering the relation between the two definitions we could perhaps say this: dialogue in the formal sense takes the meaningful interaction aspired to by dialogue in the broad sense and explores its capacities to the full under (relatively speaking) ideal conditions.

We can now turn to the issue of the appropriateness of the term “effectiveness”. Ute Kelly suggested that “effective dialogue” might even be a paradox. Effectiveness means “power to bring about a desired or expected result.” But seeing dialogue in these instrumental terms, desiring or expecting it to bring about particular results, can reduce the chances of genuine dialogue occurring. Dialogue can have a range of valuable results. Apart from the deeper understanding (of self and others) which inevitably results from good dialogue it may bring trust, build relationships and give the possibility of personal change. Dr Kelly and Simon Keyes both suggested that prescribing specific outcomes for dialogue (whether these results or others) risks undermining the essential exploratory characteristic of the dialogic interaction and interfering with the natural dynamic flow of connection between participants. (This could apply as well to dialogue in the broader sense as to dialogue in the formal sense). Positive human effects and social goods are perhaps more likely to issue from the dialogue if it is allowed to be free and unpredictable, and not required to be “effective” according to notions of effectiveness taken from other contexts.

These reservations about the “managerial” language of effectiveness gives pause for thought, because of course organisers of dialogue often have desired effects in mind beyond the process of dialogue itself. The Dialogue Society, for example, aims to advance the goal of social cohesion. Even pioneers of dialogue in the formal sense sometimes have visions of far-reaching effects. “Dialogue: a Proposal”, which outlines Bohmian dialogue (see Paul Becque’s columns) begins with this statement: “Dialogue… is a way of exploring the roots of the many crises that face humanity today.”

But Bohmian dialogue hopes to address crises not by analysing the crises themselves, but by allowing dialogue to give participants new insight into the thought processes which contribute to them. The dialogue is allowed to take its own course, without restrictions on subject areas or direction. It is given space to develop organically.

This is one of the key insights from our first panel discussion. Real dialogue requires space. We mustn’t crowd it by being too prescriptive about what it must achieve. We may have concrete aspirations in mind and trust that dialogue will serve these, but we must allow it to do so in its own time, in sometimes unpredictable ways. Perhaps in doing so we will gain a heightened awareness of the intrinsic value of this creative human process of sharing and reflection.

(This is a summary of the discussions that took place at the ‘Making Dialogue Effective’ Panel Discussion series organised by the Dialogue Society)

(We would be delighted to hear from you if you have any reflections to share on the content of these columns, or on the panel discussion videos.)

*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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