Enabling dialogical space for contentious issues

Conflicts where participants are inflexible are examples of conflicts around which dialogue is essentially precluded because the spaces where conversations about those conflicts are not characterized by good faith and suspension of judgment. These are dialogue resistant conflicts. The question of how to create dialogical spaces from which dialogue can emerge around these issues and conflicts is one of particular interest to me as a practitioner.

McSheffrey’s (2000) work places the rebuilding of Derry, including the building of the city walls and the subsequent renaming of the city, in the context of difficult planning that involves value judgments about people, politics and religions. These are certainly environmental factors that relate to the community and community ability to have time place and inclination to dialogue. In my 2004 case study, when I visited the city, I examined some ways that the environment, the very natural and human landscapes, appeared to create opportunities to enter into dialogical space around issues that were otherwise dialogue resistant.

In situations, environments or relationships which are dialogue resistant, it may be necessary to do foundational work creating willingness and good faith, and perhaps even re-humanizing the enemy enough to allow for suspension of judgement. Christina Baldwin () suggests that the circle was a primary form of social organization, which was lost. The work of Carol Lee Flinders () suggests that there are concurrent traditions in western society stemming from the advent of agriculture which included relational primacy.

Beverly Brown, author of In Timber Country, speaks of sharing ‘sticky rice’ which is her metaphor for the way in which sharing meals creates bonds between people. A more technical term for this comes from Christian theology is commensality, the sharing of meals as an act of community. While I certainly agree the creating time and place for dialogue is essential, as I’ve pointed out in the past, there must also be some intentionality and purpose.

I summarized some of the work done in the Olympia community around the local impact of the Palestine-Israel conflict inspired by Compassionate Listening as suggesting that in some cases dialogue becomes part of the problem when the foundation isn’t there to recognize the essential and interdependent humanity of the other (Bell, 2004). One primary tasks of the Compassionate Listening Project is to create for the participants a safe place to both speak and to be heard as an experience of these which they may not have had before. The speaking and listening is essential to a process of discernment that reveals the fundamental connection between humans. However, Compassionate Listening occurs in an intentional space.

Intentional spaces, whether ritual, theatrical or political are all similar to enabling dialogical spaces; and each have histories of enabling relationships to form in spite of contentious issues or dialogue resistant conflict. This suggests that the intentional work to create these enabling spaces is part of the foundation for dialogic process, and eventually over time can create the opportunity for dialogue to emerge around event the most contentious issues.