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.

graphic
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

How Civil Society Can Help Prevent Violence and Extremism

How Civil Society Can Help Prevent Violence and Extremism

Thursday, June 6, 2019

By: Leanne Erdberg ; Bridget Moix

Editor’s Note: Congress charged the U.S. Institute of Peace with convening the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. Following the public launch of the Task Force’s final report, four groups of experts came together to discuss how to implement the report’s recommendations. This four-part series will discuss the findings from these strategy sessions. Part one summarizes expert discussion on how civil society actors are preventing violent extremism and building resilience in their communities and practical ways the U.S. and other international actors can more effectively interact with civil society to bolster its role in prevention.

Fragility & Resilience; Violent Extremism

Leanne Erdberg on the Psychology Behind Terrorism

Leanne Erdberg on the Psychology Behind Terrorism

Thursday, May 9, 2019

By: Leanne Erdberg

Nearly 20 years after 9/11, determining the profile of someone who is going to join a terrorist group remains a deeply challenging effort. For too long we have looked at simple explanations— like poverty or lack of education—for why people join violent movements. Erdberg discusses a new project to investigate the psychology and neuroscience that motivates people to resort to extremism.

Violent Extremism

A Visit to Post-ISIS Syria: Human Crises Pose Risk

A Visit to Post-ISIS Syria: Human Crises Pose Risk

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

By: Robin Wright

After losing its last territory in Syria on March 23, 2019, the Islamic State quickly reclaimed global attention with the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21 and a video tape of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on April 29. The jihadi movement is now shifting focus to its ISIS branches, or “provinces,” in Africa, Asia and Europe. Baghdadi signaled ISIS’s expansion by formally embracing two Sunni extremist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso. But the Islamic State’s human core—more than 100,000 fighters and their families, including children—remains clustered in the rubble of its former “caliphate” in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, they are detained in makeshift prisons, a hospital and refugee-style camps in the desert of northeastern Syria. USIP Senior Fellow Robin Wright made a rare tour of northeastern Syria to interview men and women who were part of the ISIS caliphate and to assess the risks posed by the post-caliphate crisis.

Violent Extremism

Options for Reintegrating Taliban Fighters in an Afghan Peace Process

Options for Reintegrating Taliban Fighters in an Afghan Peace Process

Monday, April 29, 2019

By: Deedee Derksen

A central issue for Afghanistan in achieving stability is making long-lasting peace with the Taliban. The success of any such agreement will depend in large part on whether Taliban commanders and fighters can assume new roles in Afghan politics, the security forces, or civilian life. This report explores that question, drawing on lessons from how similar situations unfolded in Burundi, Tajikistan, and Nepal.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Peace Processes; Violent Extremism

View All Publications