The Importance Of Dialogue

Methods & Techniques

By Saida Nusseibeh

Dialogue among individuals, is the key factor that leads in the long-term to the settlement of any dispute between two parties that are in a conflict situation.

It is through dialogue one gets to know the ‘other’ and eventually learns to understand and respect the ‘other’. And it is this understanding that will lead to resolution of the conflict, not any signed treaty; but by reaching the hearts and minds of the people.

Dialogue itself does not automatically lead to agreement. But it is the beginning of a long and hard voyage that starts with sitting with the ‘other’ in the same room.

The process passes through many stages of defensiveness, aggressiveness, self-examination , disbelief, exploration of the ‘other’ and re-examination of our own beliefs and values.

However, throughout the process, an increased and widened understanding of the opposite side, and quite often of oneself, always accompanies the first hand experience of dialogue with the ‘other’.

To understand is not to agree. But perhaps dialogue can be the beginning of a joint search for agreement. The common ground having been established, we come to the conclusion that ‘we are both human and we both share a strong belief in basic human values, you are no more the evil side than I ‘am’.

This change in view cannot be brought about without the personal involvement of individuals: without dialogue with the other side. A person who refuses to dialogue with the ‘other’ may have many excuses.

The feeling of being unjustly treated or hurt, being ridiculed and so on, that normally stops people from interacting with others. But how can the other know of our feelings if we don’t openly talk to them about them?

The goals of dialogue

The goals of dialogue are to get to know one another, to better understand each other’s perspectives, to discuss ways of resolving the conflict, and to build a relationship for future work.

Before any of this can happen we have to connect, as human beings, to establish the ground rules: Mutual respect, honesty, and a commitment to listen.

And then we take the four steps to dialogue:

The first thing we need to do is to liberate ourselves from our fear, self-righteousness and anger. These negative emotions impede dialogue and obstruct co-operation and must be replaced by understanding of where the ‘other’ is coming from.

The second step is respect and acceptance – the value of those whom we speak to, and what they have to offer, must be respected and accepted.

The third step is that we use our will to forgive those we believed have harmed or disadvantaged us. Reality follows intentions and a determination to forgive – you/yourself as well as others – it is the first healthy step towards achievement of full forgiveness.

The fourth step is healing. To heal memories and make anger a positive experience. One way is to acknowledge that agreement is not the only way to build trust. We begin the healing process by sharing experiences and identifying needs of the ‘other’ – deepening appreciation of ‘difference’  By learning about ourselves and the ‘other’ – helping to overcome ignorance and prejudices.

The role we have here is, of course, to want to be healed, to want to let go of our pain. The end result of this process of liberation, acceptance, forgiveness and healing is, of course, reconciliation with those formerly we considered to be alien to us, the ‘other’.

Now I would like to discuss some of the methods that I have learned. I will begin with creative listening. There is an art/technique for creative listening and prejudice reduction that can help in any dialogue with the person one is in conflict with.

The concept of Creative Listening was developed from the realization that a person cannot give full attention to what is being said and, at the same time, assess it and frame a reply. True listening rarely occurs.

Despite this obvious fact, we continue to try to communicate as though this ‘double attention’ was possible. The result is failed communication, or at best part communication, in which two speakers may hear some of what is said, agree or disagree with it – but fail to reconsider or modify the firmly held attitudes they brought to the discussion.

What is the point of a conference if those who come to it representing one side expect the other side to change their views, but themselves have no intention of listening sufficiently to change their own?

The failure to listen runs through all levels of society and all activities. In discussion groups, interruptions and repartee occur, causing disruption – an irritation. The over-speakers over-speak, and the under-speakers under-speak; both are frustrated and neither is fully heard.

We are all familiar with the minutes of a committee meeting which read: “After a lively discussion the motion was carried by seven votes to five.” What probably happened is that both the group of seven and the group of five left the meeting with little or no communication having taken place.

The ‘lively discussion’ consisted of both groups pushing their views. Did anyone pull? That is, did anyone open themselves to the views of the other side?

Even if some pulling took place, time – especially time to sleep on it – is necessary, before people can make even a moderate change in their views. A
decision made the same day as a discussion does not allow time for a re-examination of views to take place.

Some groups in our society suffer more than others from being unequal participants in any group communication. For these problems, and others, Creative Listening offers a solution.

The basic principle is: When two people meet to discuss one subject, what usually happens is that they are really discussing two subjects: that is, the two viewpoints that each in turn is putting forward. If full understanding is to take place, only one subject, that is one person’s viewpoint, should be considered at any one time.

I don’t believe that total listening can be achieved by willing oneself to listen. A person who decides to listen by making that act of will, inevitably gives some attention to the act of will itself, which in turn distracts him/her from what is being said. For effective use of the Creative Listening method, the act of will must be made at the beginning, before the ‘listening’ take place (and it does need a great deal of practice).

Having made this initial decision, it is then possible to listen completely to the other person by consciously adopting some very simple techniques. With practice, this technique enables almost everyone to achieve ‘single attention’ whatever the views of the speaker and however great the urge to interrupt would otherwise be.

Basically, the method consists of the listener totally switching off their own views for the duration of the ‘listen’. By doing so, they are able to give total attention to the speaker. The listener will have a brand-new experience: by not interrupting or arguing, they will hear things they have never heard before.

The speaker too will have a brand-new experience. They will be aware of being heard by someone who is not coming back at him with a reply, criticism or opposition. And not only is the speaker being heard, he can also hear himself. This is a fantastic experience, and it sends the speaker away re-thinking the subject.

What about the listener’s desire to answer back? It is my experience that when one side of a controversy is fully heard, there is no need for the other side to be heard. One act of listening to one side of a controversy causes both sides to re-think their views. And maybe the next time the parties meet, the second party can present their views, having a more receptive audience, while they themselves have experienced a change in views.

Now we come to honesty to oneself, then towards others, then mutual respect. To be honest and respect the ‘other’ we have to take the first step in looking inward. We have to look at our own prejudices and try to understand where they came from, then look at the ‘other’s prejudices, then try to get rid of both sets.

We all have our prejudices. Our individual prejudices are just a tiny part of the burden of understanding. But unless we are aware of them, we are more likely to be part of the problem than of the solution.

Hesitating to explore prejudice is partly due to embarrassment and guilt. Embarrassment comes from not wanting to be seen as a prejudiced person, and guilt because we do have prejudices. It also comes from the fear that uncontrollable anger may be evoked if the prejudice comes out into the open in a mixed group. (I am talking about the anger that comes from the fear of being   we don’t want others to see our weaknesses, insecurities, hatred and so on).

Much prejudice is born of ignorance, often culturally imparted or imposed and later reinforced during our social interaction with others. There is no doubt that encounters with the ‘other’ and co-operative projects help to reduce negative stereotypes and group chauvinism.

However, prejudice is not always so easily dislodged. People deny concrete evidence that challenge their stereotypes and insist on maintaining them to the extent of avoiding situations where they will be proven mistaken.

Why is this so?

Clearly there are more than ignorance and culture attitudes at work. To admit prejudice can mean facing unacknowledged guilt. Requiring someone to admit their prejudice often may increase their defensiveness. “Guilt is the glue that holds prejudice in place”.

Attitude change requires the creation of an environment that reduces the guilt of people. For others, prejudice can be held in place by their own past experiences of hurt or discrimination. Insecurity can produce fear or powerlessness that often acts as a glue reinforcing prejudiced attitudes. In addition relative deprivation or rising expectations that have not been met can also fortify prejudicial attitudes.

People tend to deal with these emotionally based factors, once they have internalized them, in a number of ways. The person who has experienced discrimination attempts to feel better about himself by discriminating against someone else.

The first step in this process is called displacement. In this psychological mechanism, feelings of anger or hostility are directed against objects that are not the real origin of those anxieties. People tend to look for scapegoats to blame as the source of all their troubles: thus the Middle East conflict is entirely due to “Palestinian terrorism” or “Israeli expansionist policy”.

Scapegoating frequently involves projection. Instead of facing up to and admitting, as individuals, our own negative characteristics or secret desires that run contrary to our group’s cultural norms or values, we often project the negative characteristics onto the other group (“all Israelis are arrogant”, “all Arabs are unreliable”, etc.).

Another consequence of prejudice is that certain individuals can actually internalize negative stereotyping. That is internalize their feelings, or draw them inwards, while the exterior has changed. They begin to see faults in the behaviour of their own group towards the others and become themselves highly critical of that behaviour. They begin to distance themselves from their colleagues, whom they see as being guilty of stereotyping while not recognising the same fault that remains in them.

These psychological mechanisms are often used by individuals as a means of retaining their own self-perception of a positive self-image. Underneath, the feelings of guilt, fear, hurt, resentment and powerlessness remain unchallenged.

Getting rid of these prejudiced attitudes requires a process of emotional healing. Without this healing, prejudices are retained, lasting attitude-change is incomplete, community building hampered and personal creativity and leadership stifled.

Emotional healing can be dealt with in a secure environment through a workshop. Once we have dealt with our prejudices, then we can be honest with each other and respect each other’s opinions.

Having dealt with the importance of the art of listening and how we can look, understand and thus heal our prejudices, I would like to go on to what usually happens at a first dialogue meeting.

It is my experience that both Jews/Israelis & Arabs/ Palestinians come prepared to make the other side realise the ‘truth’. They each have a tendency to insist on ‘correcting’ the other’s misperception about the same reality. What happens is that the history that reminds the Israeli/Jews of their vulnerability reminds the Arabs/Palestinians of their rage.

So, the first step in dialogue is that we must all try to pursue a win/win strategy.  And try to remember: not to argue about who is to blame, but to agree that both peoples have made mistakes. Not to argue about who suffered more, but to agree that both peoples have suffered and experienced tragedy.

Not to argue about who deserves the land more, but to agree that both peoples deserve a homeland. Not to argue about who has had more numbers killed, but to ensure that there is no more killing.

The importance of dialogue is that we are reminding ourselves that all the dead on both sides have not settled our differences. Thus we have to look to different ways than killing to settle our conflict.

Dialogue is an exhausting, emotionally draining experience. The importance, and thus the reason, we put ourselves through this meat grinder stems from a wonderful human paradox. We endure the excruciating hours of tension in order to create ‘opposite – ordinaries’ in our relationship with the ‘other’ – humanizing the enemy and creating a new vision of co-existence. Once we reach agreement on this, we must then work toward a more peaceful Middle East.

We are not negotiators, we are dialoguers, and no matter how hard we try, not all our differences can be settled; sometimes one must end by agreeing to disagree agreeably.

I would like to end by quoting from  a poem by Martin Israel – gathered from a scrap of paper which was found near the body of a child in Ravensbruck Nazi concentration camp, where some 92, 000 women and children died during World War II. This poem movingly portrays the amazing power of forgiveness to transform human hearts.

‘O Lord – Remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those
of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted on us.
Remember the fruits we brought thanks to this suffering:
Our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, and the
The greatness of heart, which has grown out of all this.
And when they come to judgement, let all the fruits that we have born, be
their forgiveness.’


©Saida Nusseibeh

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