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Dialogue in the midst of ‘social distancing’

In this blog, Sarah Smith argues that social distancing gives us a chance to explore new ways of facilitating dialogue.

I’m quite used to connecting to people through technology. Living on the other side of the world from friends and family will do that. And in my experience, you can have just as meaningful conversations online as you can in person. Still, as I end the Facetime call with my sisters, I reflect on the fact that it took a global pandemic for all three of us to get on a call together. And that more daily interaction (in person or virtually) with friends and family, as well as with strangers (though good to avoid in-person interaction for the upcoming future), to better understand each other’s experiences and perspectives, could be a step towards decreasing polarisation. At a very basic level, dialogue is ‘a conversation between two or more persons’ and ‘an exchange of ideas and opinions’ (Merriam-Webster dictionary). It doesn’t need to be formal.

Before the global outbreak of COVID-19, the foundation talked with peacebuilders during four separate roundtables – in Jordan, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and Sweden – about how they have used dialogue within their work to promote more inclusive and peaceful societies. Discussions centred on how dialogue can impact divisions within communities, the challenges that arise in organising dialogue sessions and what is needed to bolster the role of dialogue in peacebuilding. Yana Abu Taleb, Shirine Jurdi, Peter Wallenteen, Sarah Dolah and Mohammed Shale Billow, all contributors to Dialogue in Peacebuilding: Understanding Different Perspectives, also shared during the different sessions some of their experiences facilitating dialogue.

Due to recent developments, the foundation will during the upcoming months not be organising further in-person discussions on the role of dialogue in peacebuilding. Social distancing gives us a chance, however, to reflect on and learn about different experiences with dialogue. One of the messages to come out of Dialogue in Peacebuilding was that dialogue means different things to different people. It’s multiple meanings and the way that these multiple meanings impact approaches to dialogue efforts became evident in roundtable discussions as well.

A multitude of meanings

So, to give you (the reader) something to reflect upon as you wait out COVID-19, here is just some of what participants shared on what dialogue means to them:

  • Dialogue is about enhancing participation. The process of dialogue can foster inclusivity by allowing others to enter the conversation and create new narratives.
  • Dialogue is about opening up avenues for further conversation. Even when things seem hopeless and like no solution can be found, dialogue between communities and between decision makers – even on everyday, practical issues – is an important step in building trust and can be an entry point for having more difficult conversations.
  • Dialogue is about our informal everyday interactions with each other. It provides an opportunity to express our emotions. It is an opportunity for people to get to know one another and develop relationships. Perhaps in the process, we can overcome some of our prejudices and overcome conflicts.
  • Dialogue is about persuasion. Parties communicate their needs and, through conversation, make concessions to come to a certain outcome.
  • Dialogue is about minimising divisions. Between people and their governments. Between groups within societies. Between communities.
  • Dialogue is about accepting each other and the fact that we have different backgrounds and come to the table with different perspectives. Coming to an agreement is secondary to understanding where we are all coming from.
  • Dialogue is about community reconciliation, rather than simply resolving a conflict. It is a non-linear process that requires different actors and methods throughout.
  • Dialogue is about changing attitudes – breaking down stereotypes. This requires sustained engagement.

While people highlighted different dimensions of the dialogue process, it was clear that they understood the value of the other perspectives and that the dimensions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Participants emphasised the importance of bringing the informal and formal together. Some highlighted the importance of multi-track dialogue processes as a way to link up conversations taking place at the community level with decision making and formal peace negotiations.

Participants in all four roundtable sessions, from Jordan to Sri Lanka to Sweden, also pointed out that if not done correctly, dialogue can actually increase polarisation between groups. More is therefore needed to improve skills in facilitating dialogue and to find approaches to constructively engage with those who don’t want to participate in dialogue. The international community can support local dialogue efforts by showing solidarity and partnering with civil society; building the capacities of national-level facilitators; offer technical and financial support; and provide more physical spaces for dialogue.

Taking it online

As the world collectively seeks to mitigate the effects of the corona virus, including through ‘social distancing’ and in some cases quarantine, it is critical that our interactions with each other continue, even if they take place in new settings. This provides an opportunity to explore online modalities for facilitating dialogue that we can take with us beyond the corona outbreak – an important step in also mitigating the impact that travel can have on climate change.

Taking dialogues online is in fact explored in Rafael Tyszblat’s chapter in Dialogue in Peacebuilding, which seems a particularly relevant piece in today’s climate. He maintains that online dialogue ‘can be just as effective as face-to-face dialogue in fostering empathy and positive relations between participants’. Many of the facilitation techniques for promoting a constructive conversation online are the same as those needed for face-to-face dialogues. At the same time, some non-verbal cues and whole-body language may not be as easy to read. Rafael encourages the reader to, when possible, use video, where you can at least see each other and pay attention to facial expressions.

Here at the foundation we aim to draw on this knowledge and continue to explore different avenues for organising dialogues, as well as share our own experiences in how online spaces can be used in this regard. Of course, online interactions will never be able to completely replace person-to-person communication. And it should be recognised that not all people have ready access to technology. In times like these, those most marginalised in our communities are likely to be harder hit by the health and economic implications of the pandemic and be further excluded from conversations that are moved online. Efforts to find creative ways to make sure their perspectives are included in online spaces is imperative. But as we reflect on the multitude meanings that dialogue has for people across the globe, perhaps online platforms can help us take a step in the right direction.

Think of someone you haven’t talked to lately and challenge yourself to reach out to them with an open mind to understand their points of view. Perhaps it’s time for a call, one quarantined person to another.

Sarah Smith By Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith facilitates work at the Foundation to support and strengthen UN policies aimed at building and sustaining peace, with a focus on inclusivity and youth, peace and security. Prior to joining the Foundation, she has conducted research and supported policy advocacy on conflict resolution and peacebuilding with the Uppsala Department of Peace and Conflict Research and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Sarah holds a BA in International Studies from Rhodes College and a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Research from Uppsala University.

Special blog series


Talking about Dialogue

This blog is part of a special blog series that aims to explore experiences and methods of working with and for dialogue. It complements our flagship publication 'Dialogue in Peacebuilding: Understanding Different Perspectives'.

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Talkingaboutdialogue