Dialogue has been around as long as humans faced with a crisis have gathered in circles to talk. It is one of the oldest forms of conflict resolution and is still, when well-conceived and executed, one of the most effective. But the familiarity of dialogue can lead to oversimplification or to the perception that it is easier to do successfully than is actually the case.

Palestinian NGO leaders participate in a facilitation training, including dialogue skills, in Ramallah, March 2014.
Palestinian NGO leaders participate in a facilitation training, including dialogue skills, in Ramallah, March 2014.

Such misunderstandings of what really goes into serious dialogue have led to the proliferation of poorly designed programs. In reality, effective dialogue -- the kind that produces positive change -- requires a great deal of planning and skill. The more complex and polarized the environment in which dialogue takes place, the more thought and skill are required.

Senior practitioners in USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding conduct and train others in facilitated dialogue in conflict zones around the world. Established best practices and the experiences of USIP’s dialogue practitioners such as ourselves point to the principles and practices that build an effective process.

In the run-up to the 2010 elections in Haiti, for example, USIP teamed up with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to mobilize “initiative committees” to prevent election-related violence in their communities. These committees are community action groups formed by civil society organizations and community leaders.

USIP Academy practitioners trained committee representatives from every region in the country in planning and facilitating community-level dialogues for the purpose of preventing electoral violence. Some of the initiative committees conducted dialogues that brought together representatives of the elections bureau, police, judiciary, schools, political parties, clergy, media and civil society. In those cases, the committees reported that their communities experienced little to no electoral-related violence, in contrast with other areas where dialogues had not taken place.

A justice of the peace in Guaname, a known “hot spot,” was quoted as saying:  “Thanks to this activity, there was no violence [in our community] on the 28th of November.” Another committee leader reported that on the day of elections, when some supporters of one party tried to stir violence and panic, the crowd rejected them, saying, “We have signed a pact of non-violence.”

What is Dialogue?

USIP’s Academy defines dialogue as “a dynamic process of joint inquiry and listening to diverse views, where the intention is to discover, learn and transform relationships in order to address practical and structural problems in a society.”

Dialogue involves face-to-face encounters in focused, facilitated groups with participants representing various stakeholders. Regardless of the format, all dialogue emphasizes:

  • deep listening
  • participation based on agreed-upon norms and procedures, and
  • exploration of complex issues related to identity and conflict , community or national priorities, or contentious socio-political issues.

The Value Proposition

Dialogue processes, particularly when they are well resourced both technically and financially, are of value for four compelling reasons:

  • They build the capacity to resolve conflicts peacefully. 
  • They build the capacity to cooperate across political party lines.
  • They build the capacity to develop an inclusive agenda for action.
  • They build the capacity for citizen participation. 

Dialogue Processes that Work

Dialogues can be created for different purposes, depending on the desired result, such as exploration and raising awareness; relationship-building and overcoming barriers to trust; deliberation and problem-solving; and collective action. Regardless of the purpose of a dialogue, effective processes should adhere to several governing principles, including joint ownership, learning, humanity, inclusiveness and a long-term perspective. Transparency, authenticity, patience, equality, and flexibility are further essential characteristics.

These principles and characteristics distinguish dialogue from other approaches to conflict resolution, such as mediation or negotiation, which have a shorter-term focus and are oriented toward reaching a settlement. Dialogues have a better chance of breaking through barriers to solve complex problems and reduce the risk of violence if the process sticks to the above principles and the design for that process considers objectives, scope of issues, selection of participants, selection of facilitators, realistic timelines, resource mobilization, and follow-up and evaluation mechanisms.

Dialogue is not a loose process consisting of putting like-minded people in a room together. It is a highly structured process that requires expert facilitation by dialogue practitioners familiar with the context of the conflict.

What that process looks like will be determined by the purpose of the dialogue, the nature of the conflict or set of problems to be addressed, the cultural context, the stakeholders involved and the amount of time available. For example, when groups needing support refuse to talk to one another, a dialogue might begin with encounters within each group, and then move to inter-group processes. Other dialogues prepare the ground for official negotiations by overcoming barriers to distrust that keep parties from coming to the table.

Regardless of the model,  dialogue will move participants through a series of stages. It will be rooted in a style of communication that humanizes the “other” and asks them to work together toward a common goal. To be clear, bringing people together who have suffered human loss at the hands of one another is not an easy task. It is difficult, it is sticky and it takes time. 

Linking Local and National Priorities

Dialogue can occur at various levels, from local to national. Local, or community-based dialogues, are as important as national dialogues; linking local priorities with national agendas helps ensure agreements at the national level have broad support.

National-level conflicts are often rooted in individual and group grievances originating at local levels. When left unaddressed, grievances can boil over into large-scale conflict. Disaffected individuals and groups can be recruited into violent extremism or become spoilers to peace processes. Local dialogue processes give voice to the concerns of citizens at the community level that might otherwise go unheeded. Such voices can act as a kind of “early warning system.”

At the same time, national dialogues are an important tool for defining the national identity and priorities of societies emerging from conflict, transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy or both. While the dialogue processes unfolding in Yemen, Tunisia and Libya have experienced challenges, no one disputes the importance of national dialogue processes in laying the foundations for democratic governance. 

Dialogues are dynamic processes that require continual adaptation as events unfold.  These processes can be strengthened and made cost-effective in the long-term by training local people in how to design and facilitate dialogues to help ensure community ownership and to make certain that this capability remains a sustainable and institutionalized resource within the society.  When compared with the cost of violence (both human and financial), dialogue processes, even when imperfect, are highly cost-effective. 

Maria Jessop and Alison Milofsky are senior program officers in USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. Currently, Maria is helping to prepare the ground for national dialogue in the Central African Republic through capacity-building programs, and Alison is working with USIP’s Arab-Israeli team to provide capacity-building workshops on facilitation skills, including dialogue, for Palestinian NGOs.

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