Dialogue: A Tool for Acquiring a Greater Truth (5/9)
By Christopher Sebit
Part Five: Designing a dialogue process
As far as the design of adialogue process is concern, there is no ideal or standard rule to follow. The common practice is that users of dialogue processes in society: families, individuals,communities, businesses, organizations, governments or countries have to create their own ways of designing dialogue processes. However, Schirch and Campt observe that successful dialogues have four general components or phases: phase 1 establishes common intentions and norms; phase 2 is about sharing experiences and perceptions; phase 3 explores diversity and commonalities; and phase 4 focuses on possibilities for action.
Phase 1: Establishing common intentions and norms. This phase prepares participants for an intentionally designed dialogue process through setting norms. The objective is to enable participants have a common intention to listen and learn from each other. Setting norms means creating a safe space, setting ground rules and clarifying the role of facilitators. How do we create a safe space for participants?
Facilitators play a greater role in creating a safe space for participants. They make participants feel emotionally safe by ensuring that they are not subjected to any form of verbal attacks or humiliations. Greeting participants upon arrival, clear statement of the dialogue’s goal and participant introductions help create safety for participants. Moreover, facilitators keep a dialogue focused; help participants explore various views; summarize group discussions; encourage active listening and respectful speaking. Schirch and Campt say that when explaining the role of a facilitator to a group, some of the more important points to clarify are these:  Facilitators help the group explore similarities and differences of opinion. Facilitators do not promote or share their own opinions.  Facilitators make sure that all participants get a chance to contribute to the dialogue.  Facilitators bear primary responsibility for enforcing the ground rules.
Another technique used to establish safety and good environment for dialogue involves setting ground rules or guidelines after introductions. Ground rules are important for many reasons. They serve to normalize unusual process; help participants identify the behaviors to protect; and foster respect and equality among participants. Two methods are applied in setting ground rules. One method involves listing the ground rules and seeking participants’ compliance. Another method is to derive the ground rules from the participants.
Phase 2: Sharing experiences and perceptions
The second key component of the dialogue design is sharing experiences and perceptions. Learning emerges from exploring the experiences and perceptions of people with different background. To go deeper into exploration of experiences, facilitators should devise a strategy (general plan) of how to get past introductions into the topic. It is important for them to ask participants to share an experience or experiences related to the topic before moving to tackle difficult aspects of it. They should ask neutral questionsthat require participants to explore their experiences fully. For example, a dialogue on the impact of deep divisions on a community might begin with a neutral question like this: “Please share a story about a time when your community was united and prosperous”.
Dialogue requires clear and open-ended questions that allow participants share all experiences relevant to the topic. Schirch and Campt propose these sample questions for sharing experiences: How has this issue/conflict impacted you personally? How are you copping with this issue? What is your greatest concern about this issue now? Facilitators’ questions should not privilege any one group or some participants. Handling participants well widens their collective understanding of how experiences shape their perceptions or opinions on the issue at hand. It is common to find some participants who resist or doubt different experiences of others. Phase 3 gives participants a chance to explore, in detail, the factors that account for the existence of different experiences and perceptions.
Phase 3: Exploring diversity and commonalities
In depth sharing of experiences helps participants identify those factors that attributed todifferent experiences and perceptions. What factors account for different experiences and perceptions? This is a strategic question to be answered in this phase.Some of the factors contributing to different experiences and perceptions may be sensitive or controversial for participants to handle. This requires the attention of a facilitator.
To help participants explore sensitive factors orissues, facilitators should think of separating them into subgroups having similar experiences. In case of serious differences in perceptions between subgroups, the facilitator should persuade participants to develop a shared understanding of the differences. Assuring participants that they are not the causers of the problem and that focusing much attention on major factors behind different experiences and perceptions make the dialogue healthier and interesting. To ease understanding of the difficult topic, facilitators invite experts to present facts on that topic. They may use fact sheets containing research findings or audiovisuals to present facts. Facts presentation connects participants and raises awareness about issues.
Phase 4: Exploring possibilities for action
This final phase of a dialogue requires participants to move from talking to action. They should collectively declare commitment to address the issues they have agreed upon. They may plan to start projects together. With increased understanding of issues and building of relationships across lines of division, conflict or ethnicity, participants are motivated to make positive changes. A facilitator should encourage this important step by asking participants to mention some of the positive things they have learnt from the dialogue process. The role of a facilitator needs further explanation as it determines the success of a dialogue. In the next column, this article will explore facilitation of a dialogue at length.