The Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities considers dialogue, dialogue processes and the facilitation of dialogue as a strategic tool for peaceful conflict transformation which can help produce long-term and sustainable solutions and fundamental societal changes. Furthermore, the dialogue processes can be an extraordinarily effective instrument in handling situations at risk related to mass atrocities.
Dialogue is a tool to create change in a peaceful manner.
In order to prevent violent conflicts from arising, societies need to be able to address underlying conditions that generate grievances and conflict, such as poverty, inequity, discrimination, and social exclusion.
Dialogue is needed to develop sustainable approaches to societal challenges and to build culture of democracy.
Dialogue is an essential tool for breaking down barriers and building connections across the divides in society.
Dialogue may change relationships in ways that create new grounds for mutual respect and collaboration.
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At present, more and more people are using “dialogue” to label virtually any kind of process involving people talking to each other. Therefore, it is worth of articulating our definition of ”dialogue” as clearly as possible.
The summary below relies on the definitions applied in the “Democratic Dialogue – a Handbook for Practitioners”commissioned by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Government of Canada, International IDEA, the Organization of American States (OAS), the General Secretariat of the OAS (GS/OAS), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2007.
The word derives from the Greek dialogos, which means through (dia) the word (logos), or through the meaning of the word. Literally, then, dialogue is any communication that uses words to convey meaning. However, in our terms, dialogue means a specific kind of participatory process which is particularly well suited to addressing the societal needs.
Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take others’ concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other.
Dialogue is an open and inclusive process where communication is based on mutual respect and which main objectives are: to encourage listening, learning and problem solving.
In the course of dialogue processes people come together to build mutual understanding and trust across their differences, and to create positive outcomes through conversation. Continuous evaluation of the progress achieved together deepens peoples’ relationships and builds up their capacity to make mid-course corrections and to tackle new problems or opportunities as they arise.
The critical quality of dialogue lies in that participants come together in a “safe space” to understand each other’s viewpoint in order to develop new options in addressing commonly identified problems. Dialogue provides a space in which participants learn. They learn more about themselves, about others, and about their relationships. They learn that their interests cannot be pursued successfully without the collaboration of others—even their enemies. They learn that cooperation can generate power. They learn to work together in the common or public interest while preserving their own identities.
Dialogue is a process of ‘thinking together’, where “thought” includes not only the products of our conscious intellect but also our feelings, emotions, intentions and desires. It is these largely unstated and invisible aspects of the human interactions in dialogue that move people to learn and change. Relationships begin to change when the people involved learn to be open about their own concerns, expectations, and uncertainties, and when they become ready and able to listen to the concerns, expectations, and uncertainties of others with the intent of understanding them. The individual transformations that occur in dialogue processes become the source of change in social groups, institutions and the wider society. Significant change in relationships takes time and commitment from those involved.
The entire process requires developing an atmosphere of trust, mutual respect, openness and honesty.
Practitioners often define dialogue by describing what it is not—for example, negotiation, debate or deliberation
Dialogue is different from debate in that it encourages diversity of thinking and opinions rather than suppressing these notions. In the practice of dialogue, there is an agreement that one person’s concepts or beliefs should not take precedence over those of others.
This means, that in dialogue,the intention is not to advocate but to inquire; not to argue but to explore; not to convince but to discover.
Debate assumes only one right answer and invests in pressing and defending it; dialogue assumes the possibility of an answer better than any of the original points.
Dialogue is not a “discussion” either. Discussion is almost like a ping-pong game, where people are batting the ideas back and forth and the object of the game is to win or to get points for yourself. Possiblly you will take up somebody else’s ideas to back up your own; you may agree with some and disagree with others—but the basic point is to win the game. In dialogue, however, nobody is trying to win.
Dialogue differs from formal mediation and negotiation in numerous ways:
Dialogue is not a substitute for negotiation and mediation in conflict situations. It is an essential part of conflict resolution and prevention processes, wherein the goal is to build a sustainable peace. In drawing clear distinctions, dialogue and the other processes are part of a larger peace initiative.
Dialogue and deliberation are different processes. In contrast to the opening, exploring and visionary character of dialogue, deliberation is a process of narrowing. The ways of talking and listening are the same in both, but deliberation focuses on issues and on choices among possible directions, while dialogue focuses on the dynamics of the relationships underlying the issues and on ways of changing those relationships.
Dialogue bridges the divides across the political spectrum and between the state institutions, civil society and the private sector, and it produces a “widened space” for debate about democratic reforms. The “widened space” creates the context within which the deliberation required to produce the agenda can take place.
There are also fake dialogues. These may be processes that bring people together mostly for show, demonstrating that opposing parties can sit down together but entirely avoiding the difficult issues that keep them divided. Or they may be processes convened by officials or institutions that would more accurately be named consultations to make authorities seem to be consulting on policies that they have already decided upon.
Dialogue processes that promote democracy must be inclusive, as all social expression must be heard, including political, economic, social and military expressions, as well as the expression of those who have been repeatedly excluded in the past. If inclusiveness is not comprehensive, that circumstance can compromise the sustainability of any understandings that emerge.
This criterion requires, at the very least, that the dialogue process not be an instrument of only one actor, for example, the government—to buy time or to accomplish only a government agenda. Rather, dialogue is an ‘exchange’, even when convened by powerful institutions. It embodies the democratic notion that everyone is involved and engaged equally. It is a two-way street where no one side is dictating the other.
Through this dialogue you basically assure ownership of the process. Without ownership, reform and change remain a superficial exercise. But when that ownership is assured, people really take issues forward, and that produces remarkable results compared to other experiences.
Dialogue creates an opportunity for learning through self-reflection. People begin to realize that each only has a little bit of truth. On a larger scale, this can lead to the development of ‘public knowledge’ that can make positive change more sustainable.
Dialogue is not about the physical act of talking, it is about minds unfolding. On one level, this principle addresses the quality of interaction in a dialogue process. It distinguishes a legitimate dialogue from a “fake” dialogue, wherein the communication is all one-way, and from a debate or negotiation, wherein participants focus only on winning as much as possible for their own side.
Key skills that create this kind of interaction are as follows:
This characteristic has a lot to do with how people behave towards each other when they engage fully in dialogue. It requires empathy—the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. When people start to make an effort to understand the other, the seed of dialogue is planted.
Dialogue is about using time in a different way, in the sense of realizing there are no quick fixes. One-off interventions are hopeless and useless. Significant change in relationships takes time and commitment from those involved.
When the factors that favour initiation of a dialogue process are absent, what can the practitioner do to bring about the minimum conditions for dialogue to take place?
Here is a list of some possibilities:
One way of contributing to a relative balance of power is to promote coalition-building, in which dialogue can play a crucial role. According to conflict experts, this is the primary mechanism through which disempowered parties can develop their power base and thereby better defend their interest.
When sectors or groups are simply not ready to participate in a dialogue, it may be possible and wise to promote dialogue internally in order to help them reach the point of readiness— for instance, a dialogue involving only civil society actors to overcome fragmentation and build consensus before they engage with the government.
When not all key stakeholders are willing to participate, it is not always necessary to wait until everyone is ready. Another strategy is to proceed with a partial group and build on progress made in that group so as to draw others into the process.
Sometimes a practitioner can draw resistant parties into the dialogue by speaking individually to people who refuse to talk to each other, thereby starting a dialogue by playing an intermediary role.
It might be possible to bring the pressure of public opinion, or world opinion, to bear on reluctant parties by raising awareness about challenges that needs to be addressed and the opportunity for dialogue on the issues.
In situations of violent or potentially violent conflict, these tools may be needed to establish an environment in which dialogue can proceed. These tools can be used to help lay the foundations for dialogue at a later stage.
Dialogue on the Millennium Development Goals in Mauritania (August 2004-February 2005)
Dialogue on Constitutional Process in Nepal (2004)
Dialogue in Argentina following the economic crisis (2002-2003)
Roundtable on Justice Reform in Argentina (2002-2003)
Destino Colombia (1996-2000)
Constitutional review Project in Grenada (2002-2003)
Agenda 2025 in Mozambique (1997-2003)
Dialogue on Land and Property in Nicaragua (1994-1995)