In some situations, we have not had time to prepare, and find ourselves inescapably in an awkward situation that we would have chosen otherwise to avoid. However, if we are able to take a pause and postpone the conversation, we then have the opportunity to prepare. This will greatly improve the chances of a positive outcome. As part of preparing we can ask ourselves the following questions.

What is my motivation for having this conversation?

This is an important question to ask yourself – why am I having the conversation? Too often we find that the real reason is to persuade others that our views are the right ones and that they should think as we do. This is a form of emotional black and white thinking, and will hinder constructive dialogue. We would be better off not having the conversation, unless we can start to think in terms of the greys that lie somewhere between. Only then will we have the motivation to understand the viewpoint of the other person and the subtleties of the situation.

Am I the best person to have this conversation?

Some of us are members of communities. Some work with colleagues. Many of us have siblings. It might be that you are not the best or most appropriate person to hold the conversation. Is there someone who might be better placed than you to do so? You might conclude this is the case once you have considered your own motivation. This might lead you to believe that you do not need to have the conversation at all, or that someone else is better placed than you to deal with the situation.

Who else needs to be involved?

It might also be the case that others are part of the ‘story’. They have been involved directly in what happened, or in events that led up to a situation, or have contributed after an incident.

Others may have relevant information that may help uncover aspects that would remain hidden without their involvement. Their story and viewpoints may need to be taken into consideration if you are to get nearer to the true reality of a situation.

Is facilitation needed?

Restorative dialogue is not like a day-to-day conversation and, depending on the situation, may need the support of facilitators.

In a disagreement between two people, it may be possible to work on it without facilitation. This can depend on how well the individuals know one another, their understanding of handling disagreement, and the intensity of the disagreement or conflict. The acid test is: ‘Can the individuals create a safe environment for dialogue?’ To feel safe the individuals need to know what is likely to happen and how everyone involved will behave.

Facilitation is likely to be needed where one or more of the following exist:

  • individuals do not know one another well
  • the roots of a conflict go back some time
  • unspoken irritation or frustration has festered and grown
  • antagonistic styles of behaviour are present
  • people are feeling hurt
  • tensions are high
  • the conflict has escalated
  • a number of people are involved
  • people have taken sides
  • there is disagreement about how to handle a conflict

The more people that are involved the longer the preparation is likely to take. Considerable time may need to be invested to build the foundations of trust before a dialogue can start. It is not unusual for individuals to be sceptical of being involved in restorative dialogue, or to question the neutrality of facilitators.

How can we build a safe environment?

Trust is an essential ingredient for a productive dialogue. If we are aiming to improve relations, then greater trust is a valid outcome.

The start point of any dialogue is to establish an environment where everyone feels safe to openly share their experience and how it has affected them.

Building a safe environment involves:

  • expressing concerns about any aspects of the dialogue process
  • establishing guidelines that reflect the behaviours, values and qualities that everyone would expect from each other, and commit to bring to the dialogue
  • what to do if the guidelines are not followed
  • expressing hopes for the developing dialogue

Focus on establishing a safe environment is more likely when a dialogue involves a group of people, is facilitated, or when the level of conflict is high. In such situations, pre-meetings are often required to understand concerns and what guidelines would allay these concerns. This is the pre-cursor to inviting individuals to join the group dialogue.

Establishing a safe environment where people feel able to share openly may depend on the number of people involved and the relationships between those people. Having expressed their concerns and explored the guidelines they need to feel safe; do they feel safe enough to be willing to join a larger group restorative dialogue? It may require some preliminary dialogues involving a smaller number of people in order to build trust in the process, before people are willing to join a larger group.

In the journey analogy, the group is deciding whether to travel as a single group or split up into smaller groups and meet up later before the final destination.

Establishing guidelines

A critical part of the dialogue process is drawing up and agreeing a set of guidelines that form the foundation of the dialogue. The purpose of the guidelines is to create a place where everyone can share openly and honestly. The guidelines reflect the values, qualities and behaviours that everyone is asked to bring to a dialogue. These are usually based on common values such as openness, honesty and fairness.

The guidelines articulate how participants will conduct themselves and treat one another. Initial drafting of guidelines can be done as part of the preparation or developed from scratch during a dialogue. Developing guidelines from scratch can help a group as it involves joint creation; listening to others’ contributions and exploring what is meant by what is said.

The guidelines are not cast in stone and can be amended at any time. They also act as a touchstone that can be revisited to test if a dialogue is operating as expected.

If things start to go wrong in a dialogue, it is often because the guidelines have been ignored or they are missing something. Revisit the guidelines to check if they need to be refined, amended or expanded.

Example guidelines

Confidentiality - how much of what is shared is confidential? Can anything be said outside the group? If things can be shared outside the group, what are the conditions and boundaries? Is it ok to share what is said, but not who said it?

Listening - recognise the value of deep listening. Listen to understand one-another’s point of view, rather than to plan how to respond. Try to listen more than you speak.

Speak in the first person - focus on your own experience/story and how you have been affected. Start sentences with "I" rather than "You".

Do not interrupt - allow people to finish what they are saying without interruption or side talk between other participants.

Share the air time - make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to speak and be heard. Be aware of how often and for how long you speak.

Be patient and kind-hearted - bear in mind that as people speak they may be sharing something for the first time and still thinking it through.

Judging, blaming and labelling - try not to judge, blame or label others. Judging and blaming are signs of reacting emotionally indicating we are not in a good state of mind for a productive dialogue. Labelling can prevent us seeing others as individuals – we start to see them as ‘the other’.