Dialogue Faciliation or How to Stop Solving Problems for Mediators by Sala Sihombing


Having just returned from the Mediators Beyond Borders 6th Congress in Istanbul, a couple of reflections strike me as I consider my days in the that magical city.

The MBB Congress was well attended, but for me there was one key speaker, Professor Ken Cloke. Ken is a true renaissance man and his volminous knowledge of all topics from literature to neuroscience and all stops in between is pressed into the service of mediation. He spoke about the MBB Athens Project and was bound for Athen the week following the congress.

In Athens MBB is running a dialogue project at the request of a group of Greek mediators. How is dialogue difference from mediation? and how does the role of a mediator need to adapt to faciliate true dialogue?

There are many models for facilitating dialogue, but Ken discussed a model which had three goals:

a) increase understanding

b) increase empathy

c) allow communication

These goals may seems similar to mediation.  Without doubt, most mediators would agree that their role is to faciliate communication, increase understanding and hopefully provide the nurturing environment for empathy.  However, unlike dialogue, mediation is a problem solving technique. Whilst the noble goals of communication, empathy and understanding are embraced by mediation, mediation also seeks to solve the problem.

How does dialogue add value if if does not aim to solve anything?  for the evaluative mediator, this could lead to significant frustration. Ken was asked during the congress, how is the impact of a dialogue project sustainable? how are its achievements measurable? If some of the attendees now embrace a world of greater complexity, where issues are technicolour where once they were monochromatic, what good does that accomplish?

In response to the achievements, Ken stressed the importance of feedback and evaluation. This is an important area of focus for mediators and facilitators. Evaluations are a key method of gauging what worked and what didn't.  Even the most beautifully designed and scientifically crafted technique may fail.  The impact on those attending needs to be evaluated, at least in part, by those attending. Evaluation is a major component of ensuring sustainability.  

In addition, there needs to be follow up and action points. Follow up may include future meetings, or training to enable the attendees to run their own dialogue sessions. It can be the simple act of maintaining contact with other attendees who would normally fall outside your social circle. For example, agreeing to host coffee or dinner with other attendees in future.

What good do such things accomplish? What titanic shifts can be created by such small actions? The first shift may be an internal one, in that problems stil exist but the complexities and shadows can be appreciated and understood.  Perhaps the attendee's daily experience and interactions with the 'other' may shift from hostility to acceptance.  To transform an enemy into just another person is to humanise the 'other' and allow the opportunity for you to both work together to resolve issues. Perhaps the attendee acts as a flashpoint in their family or community to begin a wider dialogue or perhaps these voices of change and understanding become the dominant ones in a national debate.

For me, the congress was a realisation that grand foreign projects may be exciting, but that it is important as a mediator to investigate and engage with your own local community. Perhaps there are places that exist without disputes, but they also exist without humans. Mediators need to help wherever they can, whether that is a glamorous overseas locale or around the corner.  We have many skills as a mediator which can be put to good use within our communities. Although, we may want to consider the use of dialogue as another tool in our toolkit which provides a space for understanding without the need to come up with a solution.  The belief being that once the perspective shift occurs within people, they will seek out the solution themselves.

© Conflict Change Consulting Ltd.  2014