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Transformative Dialogue – The Salvation of Democracy?

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by
Dan Simon

While some conversations result in “getting to yes”, others lead to clarity that no agreement is possible at that time. Sometimes we’re confronted with the challenge of “living with no”. In today’s politically polarized environment, there’s a lot of no going around. Legislative stalemates, government shutdowns, our loss of desire to talk to each other, and our extreme tribalism are all symptoms of this polarization. A recent article in the Dispute Resolution Quarterly describes how transformative dialogue can help preserve a functional democracy in the face of apparently deep divisions. In the words of the authors, “[t]his is because the primary goal of transformative processes is not to reach agreement or find common ground, but rather to change the quality of conflict interactions from negative and destructive to positive and constructive.”

The authors’ explain the process likely to be most helpful as follows:

[T}he right kind of dispute resolution process . . . must give people a voice and allow them to choose how to understand themselves and their relation to others and, especially, to live with difference. . . [The] process must not promise to ‘solve’ problems or focus on ‘getting to yes.’ Rather it must allow people to disagree while still acknowledging the fundamental humanity of those on the other side. If the process can create more positive conflict interactions, people can disagree yet still live and work together.

The sort of process the authors promote rises above the more common, outcome-focused interventions. The same sorts of pressures that often make mediation outcome-focused at the expense of meaningful change in the interaction also cause other processes to be counterproductive in terms of the parties’ interaction. The authors’ experience working with conflict within communities informs their sense that pure support for the parties’ choices tends to be more helpful on all levels. In transformative dialogue, the first question the intervenor ask the parties is “who needs to talk to whom about what?” That question is consistent with the intervenor’s commitment throughout the process, to honor parties’ choices about all aspects of the process, not just about the outcome. It’s through the parties’ decision-making within the process that empowerment emerges, and that mutual recognition increases. This focus on party choice within the process distinguishes transformative approaches from others, in which the intervenor exerts more control over the process, often limiting party interaction.

While those who promote dialogue often talk in terms of a change in the interaction between the parties, they often seek to impose that change rather than allowing it to emerge naturally. That is, for example, they instruct the parties to listen deeply to each other, and they encourage parties to talk to each other in a certain way. That guidance necessarily undermines the parties’ self-determination and tends to make the conversation less meaningful for all. In the words of the authors, “[t]his requires that facilitators control the kind of speech taking place, and this can inhibit transformation because conflict is not fully expressed, and what is difficult is not confronted.”

In transformative dialogue, the facilitator(s) do not determine who should participate, what the goals, if any, of the conversation(s) should be, what the agendas, if any, of the meeting(s) should be, or what ground rules, if any, should be set. The facilitators are present for and supportive of any conversations or decisions the parties make about these topics. On the question of ground rules for the conversation, the authors say:

Dialogues that have strict rules about how people interact may promote civility while the facilitator is enforcing the rules, but may have little or no long- term effect on interactions. In summary, allowing conversations to go to the heart of the participants’ differences allows them to confront what is difficult, to take responsibility themselves for the exchange, and to hear each other’s voices in a new way. All of these factors help contribute to real transformation, not simply the polite suppression of difference controlled by a third party.

The authors further explain why transformative dialogue works especially well in cases of political polarization. Parties to these dialogue tend to discover that the other side is not as monolithic as they imagined, that there are differences among them. Parties also gain greater clarity about themselves, including their own level of anger and distrust. Regardless of whether these dialogues lead to the discovery of common ground, they inevitably lead to greater awareness of all participants’ common humanity.


Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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