Can dialogue help us find a way forward, together?

By Claudia Goodine
January 26, 2021

In her work as a facilitator all over the world, Shauna Sylvester has seen firsthand the power that can come from the willingness to have a conversation.

“Dialogue is one of the few ways out of conflict,” says Sylvester, executive director of Simon Fraser University's Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

It’s something she witnessed in 1999, when she facilitated an informal dialogue between leading Indian and Pakistani publishers and senior editors to discuss the role of the media in promoting peace in the region.

Tensions were high after both countries had tested nuclear weapons the year before. During the first session, heated debates lasted through the day and night. Then the mood shifted.

“I remember clearly when one of the Pakistani editors realized he was actually related to one of the Indian editors,” Sylvester said in a speech. “Their families seem to have been separated by partition. There was a sudden hush in the room as everyone watched the two begin to retrace their roots. Then everything turned – laughter cut the tension, the differences dissolved and the evening turned into a long night of storytelling.”

Dialogue can be the groundwork for solving conflict, reaching a consensus on policy, or creating a foundation for informing collective action, but, perhaps most importantly, it’s a way to bring people together to witness each other as human beings.

“Dialogue enables us to be our true selves,” says Sylvester.

And we need it more than ever.

A match made in polarized opinion

A healthy democracy requires dialogue between citizens, and, while the internet allows us to connect in new ways, it has also exposed us to insidious misinformation and created echo chambers that further polarization.

In the face of this all, a platform based in Europe is experimenting with how to spark more conversations between people who hold polarized opinions.

My Country Talks launched in 2017 under the leadership of German journalist Jochen Wegner, editor-in-chief of the news site ZEIT ONLINE. Its purpose is to match individuals with opposing views on social and political issues, giving them a chance to have one-on-one conversations.

Through partnerships with newsrooms and media organizations across Europe, the platform has led to over 100,000 citizens in over 30 countries meeting either in person or over the phone to talk about everything from climate change to immigration to healthcare reform.

“We are really looking at breaking out of filter bubbles,” says Sara Cooper, project manager My Country Talks, “getting people to speak across political divides in a way that they would not normally do.”

In December, Europe Talks matched people from countries such as Bulgaria, Portugal, France and Italy to talk about the impacts of the pandemic.

“This is the second year of Europe Talks,” Cooper said just before the event, “and last year people really did get in their cars, get into planes and go meet each other.”

Hundreds of thousands of individuals around the world are wanting to connect and have genuine conversations with complete strangers.

More than half of participants say they intend to stay in touch.

“Every time that a society comes together and speaks, people develop empathy for each other,” Cooper says. “I think it's hard to have a long conversation with someone who you don't have any empathy for.”

Encouraging more conversations between individuals who disagree is only part of laying the groundwork for dialogue to flourish in a society. The tone of those conversations can be key, considering one of the things that differentiates dialogue from debate is the willingness to listen and to acknowledge that the person you’re engaged in dialogue with has valuable things to say.

As we’ve learned from people working in the field of peace mediation in conflict zones around the world, when violence and power imbalances are a concern, the challenges of even starting a conversation as well as the ethical stakes of what effective dialogue looks like go up.

Sometimes starting a conversation involves a lot of bravery.

Afghanistan's women journalists take great risks for dialogue

Afghanistan was home to several women-run radio stations in the early 2000’s, many founded with support from democratic development organization the Institute for Media, Policy, and Civil Society (or IMPACS), an organization co-founded by Sylvester.

The bravery of the women Sylvester met in Afghanistan continues to fuel her belief in the power of dialogue.

At first, when the women, wearing their burkas and holding their microphones, travelled to neighbouring communities to find stories, people would run away from them. Over time, however, people would approach them and talk. Their coverage helped spur the building of a long-promised health clinic, and when one year the army surrounded the station in Kunduz – a community in northern Afghanistan – the head of the station decided, instead of hiding under her desk or waiting to be dragged away, to go out to the troops and talk to them.

“Turned out the military had come because they hadn't been paid in three months and they wanted their story told,” says Sylvester.

The station manager got the military commander on the phone to ask him about the situation. He threatened to kill her if she aired the story, and in response she thanked him for his quote. He asked if she was recording the interview, to which she replied yes, because she wanted to ensure listeners could hear his side of the story. He laughed and said his threat was just a joke. Within a week, the troops were paid their salaries.

“Good journalism really enables a good dialogue,” says Sylvester.

Kunduz, today plagued by ongoing violence and attacks by the Taliban, remarkably remains home to at least one feminist station – Radio Roshani – run by a woman who refuses to let threats against her silence the needed dialogue about women’s rights.

The challenging work of people around the globe who are using dialogue to advance human rights, peace and mutual understanding remains vitally important to elevate.

Dialogue’s role in building community

As important as dialogue is to advancing peace and security, its other valuable role is to grow relationships and build solidarity between individuals, enabling people to organize and pursue their own goals. This was the case with an intimate, closed-door dialogue session hosted by the Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver two years ago that brought together 24 local women with lived experience of armed conflict.

Women who grew up in countries such as Guatemala, Kenya, Afghanistan and Iran shared stories about the challenges of building a new life in Canada.

“I really felt connected. We felt seen. We felt heard. It just in one day kind of created a community,” says Alice Murage, who helped organize the event in partnership with the Atira Women’s Resource Society, Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture and Surrey Local Immigration partnership.

Alice Wairimu Nderitu speaking at the 2017/18 Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue ceremony

The dialogue session was led by Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the 2017/2018 Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue recipient and an armed conflict mediator who works to make high level peace negotiations more inclusive of women.

The discussions with the women in Vancouver helped inform a roundtable in Ottawa between NGOs and the federal government on how Canada can best support women in the field of conflict and atrocity prevention, which took place as Canada was developing a national plan for enacting the UN Security Council resolution on Women, Peace and Security.

Murage says that while dialogue can be a tool for generating recommendations, it’s also about building relationships. That’s why the biennial Jack P. Blaney Award is more than a simple ceremony, but a programming residency that helps build upon the recipient’s work and foster local and global connections.

The women from the Vancouver workshop chose to meet again and keep in touch, sharing resources from their lines of work in housing and counselling for immigrant women.

“Dialogue is beautiful,” says Murage. “It builds those connections.”

The Thought Pieces on innovation in democracy were written by Claudia Goodine, a Vancouver-based writer and journalist with experience covering politics, current affairs, the environment and arts and culture. Connect and engage with Claudia on Twitter or LinkedIn.