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Let’s Talk: Charlie Hebdo, Immigration, Terror and Prejudice — Notes Toward a Proposal for Dialogue over Difficult and Dangerous Issues

[Drawn in part from Conflict Revolution: Designing Preventative Systems for Chronic Social, Economic and Political Conflicts, 2nd Edition, goodmedia press, 2015.]

"Shall I not inform you of a better act than fasting, alms, and prayers? Making peace between one another: enmity and malice tear up heavenly rewards by the roots."  Muhammad

“We are all partners in a quest.  The essential questions have no answers.  You are my question, and I am yours – and then there is dialogue.  The moment we have answers, there is no dialogue.  Questions unite people, answers divide them.  So why have answers when you can live without them?”  Elie Wiesel

 “From War to Peace is not from the strenuous to the easy existence; it is from the futile to the effective, from the stagnant to the active, from the destructive to the creative way of life…  The world will be regenerated by the people who rise above these passive ways and heroically seek, by whatever hardship, by whatever toil, the methods by which people can agree.”  Mary Parker Follett

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river.  We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”  Desmond Tutu

Why Dialogue?

As wars, religious and political differences, and international problems such as global warming, environmental degradation and poverty expand their reach, importance and severity, stimulating mass migrations and deepening social tensions, we are increasingly forced to recognize that military solutions cannot succeed; that legal processes take too long to implement; and that diplomacy does not reach deep enough into the ranks of those who are drawn to violence.

It is therefore essential that we find better ways of responding to contentious social, economic and political issues, and invite people to come together across the social, cultural, religious and national borders that divide them and improve their ability to listen, ask questions, discuss, understand, and act together to solve common problems. 

It is essential that we find ways that all of us can participate in building bridges across our divided political and cultural landscapes, and not allow ourselves to become silent, passive or overwhelmed as difficult, dangerous and polarizing events drag us into their downward logic. 

In the aftermath of wars, terrorist attacks, urban riots, violent conflicts and natural disasters, cleaning up the ashes and debris is a formidable challenge.  But it is far more difficult to heal the fury, mistrust, rage, trauma and loss that blocks healing and sparks renewed outbreaks of violence. As Israeli novelist David Grossman eloquently wrote regarding chronic conflict in the Middle East:

I feel the heavy toll that I, and the people I know and see around me, pay for this ongoing state of war. The shrinking of the “surface area” of the soul that comes in contact with the bloody and menacing world out there. The limiting of one’s ability and willingness to identify, even a little, with the pain of others; the suspension of moral judgment.  The despair most of us experience of possibly understanding our own true thoughts in a state of affairs that is so terrifying and deceptive and complex, both morally and practically… Because of the perpetual — and all-too-real — fear of being hurt, or of death, or of unbearable loss, or even of “mere” humiliation, each and every one of us, the conflict’s citizens, its prisoners, trim down our own vivacity, our internal mental and cognitive diaspora, ever enveloping ourselves with protective layers, which end up suffocating us.

In response to these overwhelming challenges, what can we do? While large-scale, long-term solutions to war and catastrophe can only be placed in motion by political action, it is possible for each of us in our families, communities and organizations to support the healing process.  Often, this means working purely locally to resolve ongoing interpersonal conflicts, which contributes to our overall belief in the efficacy of interest-based processes and ability to stop the seemingly irresistible rush to war.

But it also means simultaneously working globally and preventatively to build the capacity and skills that will be needed if people around the world are to act differently in the future when high stakes political choices are made.  This means teaching ways of communicating more effectively across cultural divides, solving common problems jointly and creatively, negotiating collaboratively, resolving disputes without violence or coercion and encouraging forgiveness and reconciliation, even after the worst atrocities.  Without these skills, the suffering will simply continue, bringing fresh suffering in its wake.

What is Needed?

As a result of climate change, economic crisis, political corruption, racial and religious intolerance, and economic inequity, significant numbers of people around the world are migrating, moving to greener pastures and searching for better lives.  As a consequence, economic resources have become strained, social divisions have deepened, political antagonisms have sharpened, and violence, hatred and intolerance have fractured once stable communities and alliances, escalating conflicts and bringing misery to many.  

These issues have proved to be an internal wedge issue for ultra-right and neo-Nazi organization around the world that have scapegoated Muslims, Jews and immigrants as the source of societal problems and encouraged hostility, expulsion and violence in response.

The unimaginable is now stirring, and we are moving toward a watershed in world events, a crossroads where values, ethics and human rights are put to a very real test, creating a flashpoint that could lead either to a resurgence of hatred, violence and war; or to an increase in dialogue, respect and collaboration.  The outcome depends, in no small part, on us. 

Many countries in Europe are in crisis today, as religious differences and immigration have deeply polarized the population.  These countries are not alone, but are rather a harbinger and bellwether of things to come elsewhere in the world.  No country is immune from these problems, and no country has discovered a surefire way to solve them. 

What is clear is that we require not war and cycles of violence; not denial of problems or well-meaning official pronouncements; not rhetorical speeches, racial denunciations or apathetic silence, but courageous conversations, authentic engagement, genuine listening, and creative problem solving.  What we require is dialogue. 

What Can Be Done?

After the shooting is over and before the next round of violence, revenge and recrimination begins, a range of possible interventions can be applied broadly in neighborhoods and communities to stimulate healing and prevent the cycle from repeating itself.  It is possible, for example, for an international team of experienced conflict resolution professionals, in collaboration with local mediators, trauma specialists, dialogue facilitators and community leaders, to:

  • Quickly pull together "trauma recovery teams" to spark and guide conversations that can promote healing and recovery in all communities that have been touched by traumatic events
  • Encourage people to design and enact rituals of solidarity with the fallen, and rituals of refusal to succumb to fear, hatred and demonization of others
  • Facilitate widespread neighborhood dialogues and “peace circles” in the aftermath of polarizing events
  • Promote broader conversations and exchanges in workplaces and public places that help strengthen empathy across differences
  • Initiate action-oriented dialogue sessions with diverse groups to discuss and make recommendations regarding deeper social issues
  • Train mediators to conduct “trauma-informed” community mediations between neighbors who are divided by religious, ethnic or political differences
  • Assist leaders in designing a model for simple, replicable, small-scale, block-by-block, neighbor-to-neighbor, house-by-house “mini-dialogues,” that can be implemented anywhere by anyone with little or no training
  • Develop a “restorative justice” framework for mediating and resolving neighborhood and community conflicts
  • Train trainers in these techniques, in order to be ready to respond quickly in the event of future emergencies
  • Facilitate public dialogues among national political leaders and use “public policy mediation” techniques to address divisive political issues collaboratively

What Makes Dialogue Successful?

To achieve these ends and implement these proposals, we need to discover that it is possible to conduct political conversations without sinking into pointless personal attacks and aggressive, competitive, or hostile accusations and counteraccusations that scuttle learning, undermine collaborative problem-solving and democratic decision making, destroy relationships and eliminate any possibility of improvement.

To illustrate how, here are a few questions that can initiate dialogue and shift political conversations in an empathetic or problem solving direction:

  • What life experiences have you had that have led you to feel so deeply and passionately about this issue?
  • What is at the heart of this issue, for you as an individual?
  • Why do you hope to learn or gain through this conversation?
  • Why do you care so much about this issue? What does it mean to you?
  • Do you see any gray areas in the issue we are discussing or ideas you find it difficult to define? What are you absolutely certain is true?
  • Do you have any mixed feelings, uncertainties or discomforts regarding this issue that you would be willing to share?
  • Is there any part of this issue that you are not 100 percent certain of or would be willing to discuss and talk about?
  • Even though you hold widely differing views, are there any concerns or ideas you think you may have in common?
  • What underlying values or ethical beliefs led you to your current political beliefs? What values or beliefs might we have in common?
  • Do the differences between your positions reveal any riddles, paradoxes, contradictions or enigmas regarding this issue?
  • Is it possible to view your differences as two sides of the same coin? If so, what unites them? What is the coin?
  • What is beneath that idea for you? Why does that matter to you?
  • Can you separate the issues from the people you disagree with, like me? What will happen if you can’t?
  • Is there anything positive or acknowledging you would be willing to say about those on the other side of this issue?
  • What processes or ground rules would help you disagree more constructively?
  • Instead of focusing on the past, what would you like to see happen in the future? Why?
  • Are you disagreeing about fundamental values, or about how to achieve them?
  • Is there a way that both of you might be right? How?
  • What criteria could you use to decide what works best?
  • What facts could convince you that your beliefs are wrong?
  • Would it be possible to test your ideas in practice and see which work best? How might you do that?
  • Would you both be willing to jointly investigate your conflicting factual assertions?
  • What could be done to improve both of your ideas?
  • Could any of his/her ideas be incorporated into yours? How?
  • Is there any aspect of this issue that either of you have left out? Are there any other perspectives you haven’t described?
  • Are there any other ways you can think of to say that?
  • Do you think it would be useful to continue this conversation in order to learn more about each other and what you each believe to be true?
  • How could you make your dialogue more ongoing or effective?
  • What could you do to improve the ways you disagree with each other in the future? For encouraging future dialogue?
  • Are you willing to do that together?

The purpose of these questions is not to eliminate or discourage disagreements, but to place them in a context of common humanity and allow genuine disagreements to surface and be discussed openly and in-depth.  These questions also reveal that political conversations need not be pointlessly adversarial, but can be transformed into authentic engagements by allowing opposing sides to come to grips with difficult, complex, divisive issues without being hostile or abusive.

A House-by-House, Block-by-Block, Community-by-Community Approach

It is possible for local neighborhoods to establish an expanding network of simple, replicable, peer-based dialogue and community mediation projects in crisis areas, in which multicultural teams of experienced mediators and dialogue facilitators train peers who volunteer, or are elected by their neighbors in the blocks where they live, supporting them in developing their capacity and expanding outward into new areas on a house-by-house, block-by-block, community-by-community basis.

A simple “block-by-block” project might begin, for example, by selecting a small number of diverse families in the same neighborhood, bringing hostile or divergent groups together, asking them to identify the sources of conflict between them and selecting the processes and techniques they might use to resolve them. It would then be possible to train cross-cultural co-mediation/community facilitation teams to help prevent, resolve, transform and transcend local conflicts; or reach consensus on shared cultural values; or facilitate dialogues and problem-solving sessions; or design conflict resolution systems to prevent future conflicts.

In many U.S. neighborhoods, cross-cultural teams of mediators representing African-American, Hispanic, Asian Pacific-American and white communities can be trained in processing feelings of grief and loss or trauma from recent tragedies, solving problems and negotiating with police, officials and other communities; facilitating community dialogues; reducing prejudice against people from different cultures who are seen as “enemies;” using state-of-the-art mediation techniques to resolve community and cross-cultural conflicts; reaching forgiveness and reconciliation; and training trainers in these methods so they can reach others. These efforts can then expand house-by-house, block-by-block and community-by-community until they begin to impact entire societies.

A 12-Step Program for Integrated Capacity Building

Taken together, these strategies and techniques suggest a simple, generic 12-step plan that could be used to increase the capacity of families, neighbors, communities, groups and organizations to help prevent, resolve, transform and transcend their conflicts.  These 12 steps can be modified to match local cultures and conditions, and used to break the cycle of revenge and violence that ultimately impacts all of us:

  • Identify potential local partners and allies and convene a cross-cultural team of community leaders and experienced trainers to conduct action research, facilitate group discussion and deepen understanding of what might be useful in resolving future disputes
  • Interview leaders of opposing groups, cultures and factions, listen empathetically to their issues and clarify cultural mores, values, interests, goals and concerns regarding conflict
  • Meet again with leaders of antagonistic groups, cultures or factions to secure agreement on a common process and plan, build trust and encourage ongoing support
  • Elicit from each group, culture or faction the methods currently being used to resolve disputes and identify ways of validating, supplementing and expanding these core strategies while introducing new ones to adapt and try out to determine which are likely to be most successful
  • Select or elect a team of volunteers from each group to be trained as co-mediators, dialogue facilitators and trainers
  • Form cross-cultural teams of volunteer co-mediators and dialogue facilitators to work with families, neighbors, communities, schools, workplaces, government offices and other sites where conflicts occur
  • Train volunteer co-mediators and dialogue facilitators in techniques for processing grief and loss, reducing prejudice, facilitating public dialogues, organizing Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, mediating community disputes and similar methods, to build collaborative relationships and trust
  • Train more advanced teams to facilitate complex public dialogues over difficult political issues, arbitrate disputes, encourage forgiveness and reconciliation, and conduct conflict audits
  • Form cross-cultural teams to train trainers in these techniques throughout civil society in different languages and support them in training others
  • Conduct periodic feedback, evaluation, audit and course correction sessions to improve the capacity of volunteers and collaboratively identify where future support may be required
  • Develop case studies revealing successes and failures and build ongoing popular, financial and institutional support for continuing dialogue and conflict resolution programs
  • Design conflict resolution systems for civil society, economic organizations, political parties and government agencies that provide increased opportunities for early intervention, open dialogue, problem-solving, collaborative negotiation and mediation between adversaries

Implementing these generic steps and modifying them to fit local conditions will allow all of us to substantially reduce the destructiveness of conflict and create a platform on which deeper social and political changes might take place. By comparison with the long-term costs of conflict, the most ambitious program imaginable would be inexpensive and well worth undertaking.

Tactically, we are always required to work with what is, but strategically we need to actively create the skills and conditions for effective communication.  We cannot, in the long run, afford to leave anyone behind. 

On a larger scale, all nations, groups, minorities, cultures, classes, races, and individuals seek to satisfy their own self-interests, yet rarely realize that satisfying the interests of others, including those of their opponents, is essential to satisfying their own.  Modern forms of warfare, ecological concerns, revolutions in communication and transportation, and economic globalization no longer permit isolated, short-term understandings of self-interest. The long-term interests of each are now increasingly and directly the interests of all, and vice versa.  Albert Camus said it best.

We live in terror because dialogue is no longer possible, because man has surrendered entirely to history, because he can no longer find that part of himself, every bit as real as history, that sees beauty in the world and in human faces.  We live in a world of abstractions, bureaucracies and machines, absolute ideas, and crude messianism.  We suffocate among people who think they are right in their machines as well as their ideas.  For those who can live only with dialogue, only with the friendship of men, this silence means the end of the world.


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

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