Effectiveness in Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue: Can it be defined or measured? Part 2

The first column in this series looked at a key issue raised by the questions of the first panel discussion: “Can effectiveness in interfaith/intercultural dialogue be defined?” and “How do we measure it?” That key issue was the appropriateness of the language of “effectiveness” in this context. Panellists were concerned that thinking in such terms could actually prevent genuine dialogue occurring by putting participants under the pressure of external objectives. A key insight of the discussion was that real dialogue requires space. Crowding it with external objectives can be counterproductive.

In this column we can use these insights to give answers to the initial questions of the panel discussion, and draw on further insights of the panel and participants for practical advice related to those answers.

Let us begin with the first question: Can effectiveness in interfaith/intercultural dialogue be defined? It is, we might say, problematic to define effectiveness in dialogue, because it is arguably ill-conceived to seek prescribed “effects” from it. The real issue for dialogue practitioners is the genuineness of their dialogue. On Yankelovich’s “formal” definition, genuine dialogue would be defined as dialogue in which participants are able to suspend inequality and coercive influences, to listen with empathy, seeking understanding, and to bring assumptions into the open. On the broader definition of dialogue genuine dialogue would involve, a little less ambitiously, meaningful interaction and exchange between participants, in which participants are able to speak to each other with some honesty and listen to each other attentively. The closer participants in dialogue in the broad sense are able to come to the ideal of Yankelovich’s three conditions, we might argue, the more meaningful their interaction and exchange will be. It is from genuine dialogue, in the experience of panellists and participants, that transformative personal and interpersonal results are most likely to issue. These in turn may ultimately lead to positive social effects.

Panellists offered various reflections on how genuine dialogue can be promoted. A conscious effort might be made to leave space for creative human things to happen in dialogue by consciously avoiding instrumentalisation. Dialogue facilitators might try constantly checking the presence of Yankelovich’s conditions and looking to restore them when they are found to be absent. On a personal level, participants may make conscious efforts to be fully present in the dialogue, avoiding distractions and attending to genuine, empathic listening (Ute Kelly).

Simon Keyes noted the importance of safety in creating the conditions for dialogue. Danger is not limited to physical danger, and where people feel in any kind of danger they will not feel free to engage in dialogue.

As Mehri Niknam noted, for dialogue practitioners, methods allowing genuine dialogue are generally learnt through experience, through trial and error. Building up the conditions for meaningful interaction to take place demands time and persistence. It often takes potential participants quite some time to develop sufficient trust in the facilitator to be ready to engage.

To turn to our second question, can we measure the effectiveness, or the genuineness of dialogue? Dr Kelly noted that the genuineness of dialogue, and its immediate effects in terms of understanding and personal transformation are best captured qualitatively (as opposed to quantitatively), through dialogic examinations, and reflective, dialogue-based writing. Perhaps the Dialogue Stories columns just beginning to accumulate on the Dialogue Society website will be able to encapsulate some of the character and effects of dialogue.

What might be measured quantitatively is the question of who is being exposed to the potentially transformative effects of dialogue. Significantly for organisations such as the Dialogue Society, dialogue can only potentially contribute to any ultimate aspirations of harmonious interfaith/intercultural relations if sufficient people from different faith and/or cultural groups are exposed to it. If the “vertical” reach of dialogue- the power of the effect it has on individuals, can only be measured qualitatively, its “horizontal” reach- the numbers of individuals exposed in particular groups, can be carefully numerically analysed. Dr Smith noted the that charity he has recently founded (“The Feast”) is embarking on major statistical analysis of who is coming, and who is coming back.

We will find, examining the other panel discussions in this series, that exposing diverse people to dialogue is an ongoing concern of many dialogue practitioners. Practitioners try a range of approaches to widen the appeal of dialogue. This is where dialogue according to the “broader” definition can come into its own. People uninterested in intercultural dialogue per se may be interested in mountain biking with other young people of different faiths, or in engaging in social action with a culturally mixed group. Such activities can, sometimes, be the starting point of ultimately meaningful dialogue for broader audiences. Dialogue practitioners may find themselves balancing two concerns: making sure that people come to engage in dialogue, and making sure that what they engage in is a genuine dialogue.

(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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