Rethinking Dialogue

Image credit- Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue

My first encounter with dialogue as a process of conflict transformation was in 2008 shortly after the post-election violence in Kenya that left over 1,200 dead and thousands of others displaced. There was a sudden craze and concerted push by the international community and civil society groups in Kenya for leaders and the general public to engage in dialogue in order to restore peace. Following a long and gruelling process of dialogue, mediation and power sharing arrangements, Kenya was able to bounce back to a state of normalcy. However years later, there still is a strong sense of mistrust, injustice and hostility amongst certain communities due to the egregious acts of violence committed.

Cut to June 16, 2019 — we arrive at the Nansen Peace and Dialogue Center in Lillehammer, a picturesque location overlooking Lagen river, forest-clad hills and the famous Ski Jumping Arena where the 1994 Winter Olympics took place. We are 28 participants between the ages of 18 to 42 from 13 countries. Doctors from Somalia and Georgia, students from Minnesota and Hawaii, assistant professors from Indonesia and Colombia, activists and advocacy practitioners from Kenya and Ukraine, health practitioners from Myanmar and Uganda. We were different, in every sense of the word. Some were shy and kept to themselves, others were animated and talkative, while some like me were somewhere in between.

When the rubber hit the road, we sat in big and small groups for close to 8 hours a day engaging in conversations about contentious issues such as capitalism, surveillance and gender roles. As expected, the process was taxing and stirred a range of emotions. It also provided an opportunity to reflect, re-examine and challenge some of the beliefs we hold so dearly. Although I have had dozens of conversations about these issues before, there was something different about the conversations we had at the Nansen Center. I felt heard. It was a safe space with clear ground rules and where all perspectives were accommodated. By listening to others openly share their stories, experiences and feelings, I felt a sense of empathy, connectedness and understanding—even though we sometimes didn’t agree. How do you measure that or report that as an impact? You can’t. You just feel it and experience it. And that in itself is enough.

One of the striking realizations from the experience was the discovery that we can create opportunities for dialogue in unconventional ways and break down barriers between people with intractable differences who would never otherwise have even considered speaking to each other. While the common conception is that dialogue is confined to boardrooms and agendas, we learned how people with extremely divergent world-views and perspectives managed to find common ground over food, over drinks at a bar or how physical spaces such as walking down the iconic Olympic Park in Lillehammer can foster shared experiences. Dialogue as a process can be fluid, immersive, blend into and flow from physical spaces and interactions.

Peace and conflict resolution may seem lofty and unattainable especially in countries with long histories of conflict. While we might not see or measure the immediate impact of dialogue, the mere act of having open conversations characterized by mutual respect, active listening, humility and empathy, fosters understanding and better relations. 

First published on September 23 2019 by the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue

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