Practical skills: facilitating dialogue

Conflict

In the process of handling conflicts it is important to look for ways of expanding the possibilities for dialogue amongst the parties involved. Dialogue is often abandoned too early as emotions rise, and people begin to use forceful strategies. But eventually the parties will return to dialogue as they try to work out an agreement to end the conflict. 

Facilitation of dialogue is a skill that can be especially useful during the stage of confrontation, before the situation has polarised to the point of crisis. Of course, the application of this skill will need to be adapted to the particular culture and circumstances in which you are working. Facilitating dialogue enables people to share their own views and listen to differing views about a political or social concern, thus gradually moving towards a deeper understanding of their situation. Agreement is not a primary aim of dialogue, but understanding is. 

Any effort to encourage conflicting groups to enter into dialogue needs to ensure that it does not increase tensions. The following guidelines are aimed at preventing this.


Be clear about your own role and objectives

Be clear about your own role and objectives icon

As facilitator, be clear about what is or is not part of your role. Your role is to assist the process of communication without expressing your own views about the issue being discussed. Your objectives are to provide a setting and an atmosphere in which differing views can be exchanged and listened to honestly but without hostility.

As facilitator you are responsible for the process, but not for the content of the discussion. If you are working as a team of facilitators, then it is important that co-facilitators agree in advance about roles and objectives. It is also important that you explain your roles and objectives clearly to the participants and check that they have understood and agree with them.


Help the participants to identify their own objectives

Help the participants to identify their own objectives icon

In advance of the session, you should try to meet with key people from the groups involved to help them set their objectives. This will make it more likely that groups will ‘own’ and support the structure and aims of the process. In any case, there should be a brief statement of agreed objectives at the beginning, to remind everyone why they have come.

For example: they may want to present their side’s perceptions or a party position, win votes for an upcoming election, envision people about the future or give a personal perspective. Is this objective consistent with the aims of other parties to the discussion?


Assist participants to agree on ground rules for this dialogue

Assist participants to agree on ground rules for this dialogue icon

Help them to set guidelines for themselves which they own and follow during the dialogue. Consider in advance, and make clear, the mechanism for dealing with difficulties.



  • How will people signal that they wish to speak, and who will give them the floor? Who will decide whether ground rules have been respected?
  • Think in advance about what you, as facilitator, will do in given cases. People may test the limits. How will you respond?
  • Are you clear who has set the rules, so that you are able to say that the whole group has agreed them, or that a planning committee decided on them?
  • Are you willing to discuss the possibility of changing the rules? If so, how? By everyone agreeing, or by majority vote, or another way?


Encourage participants to listen to each other

Encourage participants to listen to each other icon


Political talking often seems to include very little listening – it is what someone called ‘the dialogue of the deaf’. While one person speaks, the others prepare what they want to say, and they listen only to contradict each other’s arguments.

For change to happen, people must really hear each other, and must feel that they have been heard. As facilitator, you need to have ideas for ways to encourage listening. Some ways in which you might help people to listen to each other include:

  • Paraphrasing, ie checking what people have said, and demonstrating to them that they have been heard. Example: ‘Are you saying that…?’
  • Asking questions that help people to share their personal views rather than a party statement, if it is appropriate to be vulnerable in the given context. Example: ‘Have you always held that view?’ or ‘what experience led you to that?’
  • Encouraging responses to feelings and experiences as well as issues. Example: ‘Do you see how that would feel to the other person?’

Despite the pressure caused by all the things a facilitator should do, try to focus your eyes and your attention on each speaker, and try to imagine how each listener is coping. If there is any possibility that listeners might be having problems, encourage the speaker to slow down, speak more loudly, or define terms. If possible, have a co-facilitator who can look after time, process and note-taking, freeing you to concentrate on the content of the discussions and the participants.


 Have a strategy for coping with strong emotions

Have a strategy for coping with strong emotions icon


The first step in dealing with strong emotions is to notice them. As facilitator, be attentive to signals that indicate strong feelings. Then:


  • Try to provide a safe way for people to express emotions, by asking open-ended questions that allow space to talk about feelings without forcing: Example: ‘Would you like to tell us how you react to that?’ Or offer a format or structure that would allow people to express their feelings in a structured way: Example: ‘When you do/say __________________, I feel __________________ because __________________.’
  • If possible, get people to share the experience that has prompted the feeling, rather than having multiple expressions of the same feeling.
  • Try to provide ways for aggressive emotions to be transformed into more vulnerable ones; for example, anger may mask hurt or sadness, while fear may be an expression of helplessness or powerlessness. But do not force people to take more risks than they are ready for. You can only make the opportunity – they must decide whether or not to take it.
  • Though it is best for emotions to be expressed by those who feel them, the facilitator can sometimes verbalise emotions that he/she can see in the group. Example: she/he may say ‘that makes me uncomfortable, because it may hurt some people here’.
  • Be prepared for parallel feelings to arise and give them room to be expressed – but try to deal with one at a time, promising to return and give attention to other feelings later.
  • Where possible, let participants respond to each other’s emotions in a natural way, without intervening to protect or direct them unless it seems necessary.

Talking about emotions and experiences can free us of our positions, and enable us to concentrate on needs. Getting beyond ‘party positions’ to honesty is more likely to lead to cooperation and discussion that is focused on the problem, rather than on our strategies for winning. Open-ended questions may allow participants to suggest future actions or new possibilities in an attempt to meet everyone’s needs.



Some possible scenarios

There are various situations in which one might want to encourage and facilitate political and/or social dialogue, including: 

  • Within an existing group whose members have not wanted to share their views on a difficult political or social topic with each other, or have discussed these only in a negative or adversarial way.
  • Between different groups, when they meet together, sometimes explicitly to share views on a political or social issue, sometimes for another task or purpose, wherever a difficult issue is likely to arise. 
  • In a private meeting between opposing political figures, facilitated by another more neutral person (who may have brought them together).



This extract from Working with conflict (page 113-115) has been adapted and reproduced with the kind permission of Responding to Conflict (www.respond.org). For contact information and details of how to order the book, see the Resources page.