We gathered a dozen facilitators from the IAF to explore how to unite people. These keen observers of human dynamics had been watching the world’s divisions grow wider – the left & right, the haves & have-nots; and closer to home our families and workplaces that have been increasingly taking sides. Facilitators know there is power in the middle ground. 


Is your organization split?


Your family divided?


Your community seeking solidarity?


This was a Dialogue Experiment to explore how to bring people into conversation. Here are the insights from their discussion, as well as some resources to help you to be a bridge between the different sides.


How Can We Establish Dialogue?

The facilitators spoke about the conditions needed to bring people into dialogue; and then explored how to put those conditions in place. Here are our experts top five suggestions.

Willingness to Explore. People need to be curious about the other and able to listen openly to each other. There needs to be a shared intention of mutual exploration. To create that level of openness, we need to help people put to put their preconceptions and assumptions aside. On the one hand, we can set some guidelines for groups (for example in this Dialogue Experiment, we used Boem’s Principles of Dialogue); on the other hand, individuals need to decide for themselves if they want to engage. We can move people in that direction with questions, such as – what becomes possible when we understand the other?

A Shared Human Story. When people feel part of a shared humanity, or even just a shared cause, they are more likely to put their differences aside in order to explore their larger issue. Whether you are putting people in touch with the common good or their common goal, telling stories about that commonality is one way to bring about the realization that “we're in this boat together.”

A Common Need. Teams unite around a common challenge. Some feel that having a shared goal unites people. Others think that in life, many communities have diverse ambitions. If we can help a group see that there is a benefit in working together, this can help. That benefit might be an end goal; but if may simply be the satisfaction of being in dialogue as opposed to in opposition. Either way, as facilitator we can help people see "the context as a landscape that the group sits within together."

Safe Space. Imagine a container that holds dialogue. This container is build simultaneously by each person present. Each person contributes to (or can break) this container. We recognize the container when we feel safe to speak; when there is no violence and no judgment. In this place, there is transparency of intent and freedom to speak one’s mind. A facilitator can do much to create this environment, but mostly through their invitation to join in a set of values – openness, compassion, curiosity. This can be implicit as a role model; and explicit by asking the group questions about the behaviors the want to experience together.

Respect. Our experts talked a lot about trust and respect. Clearly dialogue is better in safe and healthy environments, but is it possible when there is fear, betrayal and politics? What was agreed on is that the act of dialogue can build empathy and eventually respect. So trust is an outcome not a prerequisite. This is a delicate matter for facilitators, but laying out guidelines or rules of engagement can help, as in sociocracy or deep democracy.

These principles are consistent with Gorden Allport’s research about contact hypothesis which confirm these views. His research extends it to think about the need for Equal Status (lack of hierarchy and power dynamics) and Personal/Group Interaction (a mechanism to support exchanges to happen.) Together, these conditions provide us with a way to improve relations among groups that are experiencing conflict to move towards dialogue.

At the center of this conversation on how to being people into dialogue was empathy. If you feel that empathy is elusive in your group, have a listen to this NPR Hidden Brain podcast, Tribes and Traitors. The interviews explore what people have been doing on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide to explore mutual understanding. A poignant portrayal of the challenges of empathy and the need for dialogue.

Overall, this group's two hour Dialogue Experiment brought a great deal of wisdom to the surface in a very short time. As one participant put it, "This was very powerful... but we are just at the tip of the iceberg." Indeed warming relations takes time, yet if we experiment daily, we get better at bringing people together.


The Dialogue Experiments

This Dialogue Experiment was part of a research project conducted for a forthcoming book called Stimulating Conversation: How To Get People Talking. Have a peek, if you would like to run your own experiment or see extracts of the book.

The Dialogue Experiments are easy to run, you simply bring people together to talk about a subject and after you ask them to reflect on three questions:


•HELPED: What helped us talk together & why is that important?


•HINDERED: What got in the way of dialogue & why is that important?


•INSIGHTS: What have we learned about stimulating conversation & why is that important?


For example, here is a selection of this group's observations at the end of their experiment on bringing divided groups together. About what Helped or Hindered their conversations, as well as their Insights about stimulating conversation.






Stimulating Ideas & Building Futures