The actual dialogue may require a single session or, for a more serious conflict, a number of sessions. The dialogue is split into two phases; the first phase is to build trust and the second is the actual dialogue. The work on the conflict or issue does not start until the second phase, before that the focus is to continue building the safe environment that will best enable individuals to engage and contribute to the dialogue.

Where a dialogue is over a number of sessions, bear in mind the importance of maintaining trust over follow up sessions. Some of the things done at the first session to build trust are just as important in the follow up sessions.

Building trust

Coming to a dialogue can be a big step for people. It's a new experience and one where they do not know what the outcome will be. It is an uncomfortable situation and any uncomfortable situation is felt as a threat. Individuals will be wary, on alert and emotionally vulnerable.

The first stage of the dialogue is to build trust or maintain the level of trust that has already been established in the preparation stage. This starts from the moment people walk through the door.

Greeting people

First impressions have a big impact on how we perceive the situation. This is magnified when we are in a situation that is new to us. Make very effort to make people feel welcome, be warm, shake hands and if possible provide a warm drink.

Introductions & getting to know people

Part of building trust is getting to know the other people in a group. Make time for introductions that are more than who they are. Ask people to share information about themselves. Have some prompting questions ready that can be used to get to know more about the individuals. It is especially useful if these questions show something about the character of the person, for example, 'What is your favourite film and why?' When working in a circle the process involves doing a storytelling round of the circle, and in every session of the circle a check-in round is done.

Agreeing the guidelines

The guidelines may have been drafted during the Preparation stage with individuals making contributions. At this stage the guidelines are either further developed or created from scratch. Additions and amendments can be made, agreement is sought to stick to the guidelines and that it is the responsibility of each participant to hold each other to the guidelines.

Developing the guidelines is useful in a dialogue, particularly when working in a group as it provides an opportunity for the individuals to work together and experience creating an outcome together.

Sharing the dialogue

For a dialogue to be seen as fair, the speaking time must be shared equally. When working in a circle, a talking piece is the main way the dialogue is regulated This is particularly helpful for group dialogues. If a talking piece is not used a way of working is needed that makes sure the speaking time is shared equally and everyone has an opportunity to speak, and is encouraged to do so.

Restorative dialogue

The actual dialogue can take some time depending on the number of people involved, the nature of the issue and how long it has been going on. It may be possible to resolve a simple conflict in a single dialogue session, but the reality is that most conflicts will need a number of dialogue sessions. For a more straight forward dialogue the following restorative questions can be used as a template;

  • From your point of view what happened?
  • What do you remember thinking at the time?
  • What have you thought about since?
  • How have you and others been affected?
  • What about this has been the hardest for you?
  • What feelings and needs are still with you?
  • What do you think needs to be done to make things as right as possible?

An alternative approach described in 'A Little Book of Dialogue' by Lisa Schirch & David Campt is to break the dialogue into two phases; Sharing experiences and perceptions, and Exploring Diversity and Commonalities.

Sharing experiences and perceptions

We all have unique experiences and these lead us to see things in a particular way. The focus of this phase of the dialogue is to provide an opportunity for each person to share their experience of the issue or conflict. It can be particularly useful to ask questions that encourage individuals to explore how their experiences have shaped their beliefs, views and assumptions about the issue.

Questions that encourage sharing experiences of an issue are;

  • What was your experience of the issue?
  • How has this issue or conflict impacted you personally?
  • How are you coping with the issue?
  • What is your greatest concern about this issue now?

The focus is maintained on sharing experiences of the issue, rather than expressing opinions, analysing the situation, speculating or generalising experiences. This is something that a facilitator needs to be mindful of and explain that the next phase offers the opportunity to explore opinions and the experiences that contributed to them.

Exploring diversity and commonalities

The core question of the previous phase was 'What was your experience?'. For this phase it's 'What are our perspectives, where are they different and similar, and what experiences have led to these?' Our different experiences lead us to see things differently. We have a tendency to see our perspectives and experiences as the truth, and those of others as wrong. By exploring our perspectives and the experiences that shape them we are able to get a better picture of what contributes to the wider truth, one that incorporates the truths of others, as well as our own.

Useful questions from 'A Little Book of Dialogue' are;

  • How is the conflict or issue affecting our community?
  • What changes are we seeing?
  • How has the conflict affected how we work together? Are there new tensions among us?
  • What is the wound that keeps us from addressing the issue?
  • What values in our community can we draw on to address this problem?
  • What are the causes of the conflict?
  • What is the history of the problem?
  • Do we have different understandings of the issues history among us?
  • What are the three most powerful forces fuelling the issue or conflict?

Becoming agents for change

By sharing experiences, perceptions and building a wider truth it is hoped that as well as building relationships the participants might choose to change the situation, rather than perpetuate it. By seeing a connection between their own perspectives and behaviours, and the forces that perpetuate the problem, the dialogue highlights that each participant can be an agent for change.

Introduction | Handling the trigger | 1. Preparation | 2. Dialogue | 3. Finding solutions | 4. Follow up

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