Dialogue is a powerful instrument for creating understanding between groups who are in conflict with one another. Unlike debates or decision-making processes dialogues are open ended—their purpose is not to “win” or make decisions, but rather to allow people to deepen their understanding of a particular issue and to form relationships between people that may transform how they think about each other and how they can engage with people different from them.

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Image Credit: Luba Lukova

[About this series: The role of women in countering and preventing violent extremism is getting increasing attention worldwide, but a coherent international framework is still needed. To encourage this conversation and process, USIP is launching a guide, “Charting a New Course,” containing essays and exercises to help practitioners discuss the role of gender in countering violent extremism. Copies will be distributed at a March 6 discussion, Women Preventing Violent Extremism: Charting a New Course, and the guide will be available online at a later date. The related projects, Women Preventing Extremist Violence (WPEV) and the Sisters Against Violent Extremism Mother Schools (SAVE), have been funded by the U.S. Department of State. Three of the essays in “Charting a New Course” were contributed by USIP experts Alison Milofsky, Georgia Holmer and Nancy Payne and appear here on The Olive Branch this week.]


Dialogue comes from the Greek dialogos. Dia translates to “through” and logos means “word” or “speech” (Online Etymology dictionary). Dialogue is a process of increasing understanding through words. In conflict situations, communication is often difficult. People tend to become entrenched in their positions, sticking firmly to what they believe and often trying to persuade others that they are correct.

The latter approach to communication leans toward debate rather than dialogue. When conversations move in this direction, the search for greater understanding is often lost. “Why seek new understanding when I know I am right?” one might argue.

Dialogue is an alternative way of communication. As a listener, I seek greater understanding in dialogue because I recognize that not all situations have one right answer. I open myself to other possibilities. I ask questions to gain a better understanding of what forms another person’s perspective rather than to dismantle their argument.

Dialogues also open up new ways of thinking about an issue. Dialogue invites people to think about and envision what they have not previously considered.

Women and women’s organizations active in trying to prevent violent extremism can use dialogue as a way to bring communities together and bridge differences. They can also use dialogue to encourage constructive listening and to speak with individuals or groups of people prone to radicalization.

A dialogic approach invites the listener to keep an open mind, to be mindful of their assumptions and cognizant when those assumptions are being challenged. It involves asking open-ended questions that are intended to deepen understanding rather than create defensiveness on the part of the speaker. It is an approach rooted in positive intent.

A dialogic approach to listening requires certain skills. It may necessitate unlearning some very basic practices that are firmly rooted in years of schooling around debating ideas, writing persuasive essays, and defending theses, all of which have their place in society.

If women and women’s organizations want to engage those sensitive to violent extremist messages or engage with agents of the security sector they must first learn how to listen without judgment, how to develop an awareness of assumptions of the “other,” and how to focus on experiences rather than ideas.

When engaged in dialogue, “Why do you think that?” becomes “What experiences have you had that might help me understand your perspective?” Such simple reframing of questions can be learned, but a willingness to engage from a place of good will must come from within.

Related Publications

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Violent Extremism and Community Policing in Tanzania

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

By: Lillian Dang

After the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi and the increasing presence of al-Shabaab in nearby countries, Tanzania turned to community policing as a way of responding to the threat of violent extremism. But is it having the desired outcome? This new report, based on workshops and interviews with police, community leaders, and others, examines the challenges and potential of community policing in addressing Tanzania’s public safety and security concerns.

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What Can Make Displaced People More Vulnerable to Extremism?

What Can Make Displaced People More Vulnerable to Extremism?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

By: Belquis Ahmadi; Rahmatullah Amiri; Sadaf Lakhani

As the international community works to prevent new generations of radicalization in war-torn regions, debate focuses often on the problem of people uprooted from their homes—a population that has reached a record high of 68.5 million people. Public discussion in Europe, the United States and elsewhere includes the notion that displaced peoples are at high risk of being radicalized by extremist groups such as ISIS. Scholars and peacebuilding practitioners have rightly warned against such generalizations, underscoring the need to learn which situations may make uprooted people vulnerable to radicalization. A new USIP study from Afghanistan notes the importance of specific conditions faced by displaced people—and it offers indications suggesting the importance for policy of supporting early interventions to stabilize the living conditions of displaced people after they return home.

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ISIS Returnees: Can Ex-Fighters Be Rehabilitated?

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As the last pockets of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” collapse this month, nations far from the battlefield face an increasingly urgent challenge: How to reintegrate the group’s former militants as they come home and seek to disengage from extremist violence. For the officials in charge of the process, it’s an undertaking fraught with uncertainty whose failure could mean continued recruitment or even terrorism on their streets.

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Elie Abouaoun on Iraq a Year After the Fall of ISIS

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

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Live from Baghdad as Iraqis celebrate the one-year anniversary of the fall of ISIS, Elie Abouaoun says that there is a sense of relief in the country over the terrorist group’s defeat and that elections happened this year. To maintain this positive momentum, adds Abouaoun, Iraq’s infrastructure must be rebuilt, and measures should be taken to reinforce social cohesion at the local level.

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