I spent several days last week with two of my colleagues from Israel–Farhat Agbaria and Shachar Yanai. Both are seasoned dialogue facilitators. One is Jewish and one is Palestinian. Both have learned powerful lessons about “the other side” through dialogue. When I met them seven years ago in their world, I was not only inspired by the work they were doing to bring people together across borders there, but moved to continue using the methodology of dialogue to traverse the borders that define our conflicts here in the U.S.
Last Tuesday night, the three of us had the opportunity to facilitate together for the first time. And it happened here at Penn State. The dialogue was open to the public, and Foster Auditorium was surprisingly packed for an icy winter evening. Some of you may have already guessed that this kind of open forum changes the intimacy and vulnerability often necessary for the most constructive of dialogues–especially between people in conflict. But we wanted to offer a window to the general public into the way dialogue operates–using different rules than our routine methods of talking and leading to different outcomes as a result. The participants were drawn from Lions for Israel and Students for Justice in Palestine, the student organizations who co-sponsored Farhat and Shachar’s visit (along with Students for Public Diplomacy).
At the beginning of the event, I mentioned to the audience and the participants that one simple goal of dialogue is to understand the other side, not to win the argument. And with this goal in mind, either we would all win or we would all lose in this dialogue–because those are the stakes when interdependent communities are in conflict. (That’s all of us.)
The conversation started off slowly, with tentative introductions, as well as both palpable excitement and apprehension about what was going to happen in this exchange. But very quickly the group jumped into the conflicting views and positions that were held (or assumed to be held). Statistics were launched. Curt comments acted like verbal slaps. Emotions ran high. True listening ran low.
We’ve all seen this kind of interaction. And we’ve all participated in it. Nothing new here. I noted this to the audience.
As the exchange continued, we worked to shift the way the participants communicated their positions and passions to one another. At this point the group entered a different kind of tension. Longstanding habits of “communicating to win” are not easy to counter. One of the participants pushed back against our suggestions to speak in specifics about his own experience or to ask his question directly to someone in the circle by saying, “I didn’t come here for group therapy.” That was an important comment, a telling comment. He expressed one informal standard for interacting around conflict which often involves exhibiting a kind of confidence designed to dominate the opposition, not one that looks more like “being nice.” Of course these qualities are not in contradiction to one another, but being nice is not even close to the intention in dialogue. The intention is to be heard and to be specific and to take the risk to say what you really mean–as well as to listen to something you may not have heard or may not want to hear. This stuff is far from soft or nice. Actually, this is rugged territory, and bravery is required. And this is exactly why we were motivated to open this dialogue to the public in the first place–to suggest that there is more to “talking” than most have ever considered. The limited experience most of us have had with these methods may be why, when conflict arises, we rarely turn to words and instead reach for weapons.
Back to the dialogue.
In spite of the explicit conflict present in our circle, I still observed tiny shifts during the conversation that, with time (and no audience), can become the foundation for the differences in outcome I was referring to earlier. What kinds of shifts did I observe? Individual participants acknowledged that others had more nuanced views than what they had assumed when we started, leading to a slight shift in tone as real people (not caricatures) began to fill the seats. In addition, I could see subtle curiosity emerge as those original assumptions were seen to be inadequate. These shifts were not the most dramatic moments of the encounter or maybe the most memorable to the audience, but they were the necessary footholds that allow us to climb, step by step, over huge mountains that stand between us. And that’s what dialogue seeks to do.
Did we all win that night? No.
Did we all lose that night? No.
Why do I say that? Because the group didn’t reach a new level of understanding in the dialogue. But after the dialogue, I saw the most polarized participants engaged in conversation with each other. That is a giant step. And, as I write, to their immense credit, both student groups have expressed their desires to come back together for a second dialogue. All of these instances mark the slow and subtle work of transforming conflict into collaboration.