For dialogue & conflict resolution
February 15, 2001
The newly established $20 million Wosk Center for Dialogue at Simon
Fraser University in downtown Vancouver promises to set a new architectural
and philosophical challenge to City Convention Centers everywhere.
Opened on September 20, 2000, the Center breaks with the traditional
design of meeting halls. In place of the big, linear, and impersonal halls
including a high platform and podium, the Center's main meeting hall is
built in a series of circles and is equipped with the latest interactive
Each seat is enabled with computer projection and polling buttons indicting
yes, no, abstain, and two other open choices. The hall is clearly intended
to be egalitarian and conducive to dialogue. It represents what the world
desperately needs now for dialogue and conflict resolution.
At a Center conference that took place on Dialogue and Negotiation (Feb.
2-3, 2001), bringing practitioners and academicians together, the result
was a rich, participatory, intimate, and enlightening conversation. Admittedly,
the participants were generally predisposed to dialogue.
They consisted of lawyers, mediators, arbitrators, family therapists,
civic leaders, and professors of communication, peace studies, and international
affairs. But in taking up three different case studies of a dialogic approach
to conflict resolution, it became clear that the method is sorely needed
for most human conflicts that plague the world today.
Iona Campagnolo's presentation of cooperative decision making in the
Fraser Basin in British Columbia showed how a complex regional development
project can, in fact, engage all stakeholders instead of just the government
By leaving their egos at the door, the stakeholders in a contentious
development project have discussed and resolved many of their conflicts
amicably. Great Fraser River in British Columbia supplies 80% of water
in the province.
The Fraser Basin Council, consisting of the major stakeholders in five
geographic regions, has focused on sustainable development, environment,
The case study of the residential schools, in which the children of
the Canadian indigenous population had been subjected to prolonged sexual
and other abuses, demonstrated how a potentially explosive and costly litigation
could be circumvented by pacific settlement out of court.
Presented by Robert Joseph, a tribal chief, and Glenn Sigurdson, a lawyer-
mediator, the case also has successful grappled with reconciliation among
the indigenous peoples and the churches.
The abused victims carried the scars of their childhood memories while
the churches were faced with financial and moral responsibility for the
misdeeds of their forefathers.
The power of dialogue was shown again in a case study of the Toda Institute's
project to achieve security and cooperation in the Persian Gulf region.
This is an explosive region of the world that has already known two wars
and a creeping third.
In the last two decades, over one million people have been killed, another
one million maimed, billions of dollars of property destroyed, while the
population of Iran and Iraq are suffering under U. S. sanctions.
In collaboration with other peace and policy centers, the Toda Institute
has established an International Commission for Security and Cooperation
in West Asia consisting of senior diplomats and scholars from the littoral
states of the Persian Gulf, the five permanent member-states of the UN
Security Council, and the UN.
The commission has so far met three times in Istanbul, Turkey (1999),
Limassol, Cyprus (2000), and Doha, Qatar (2001) to explore the possibilities
for arms control and dispute resolution among the littoral states.
Dialogue (among two) and multilogue (among many) can be best understood
in contrast to other conflict and communication strategies. Violence, silence,
adversarial, didactic, command, persuasive, bureaucratic and disciplinary
communication strategies are employed in a diversity of conflict situations.
Violence is the language of raw force. It is often used when all else
has failed or when one or several parties see a gambling chance in getting
their way through violence. Silence is typically the communication strategy
in situations of repression, in which the oppressed choose to keep their
peace while undermining the oppressor in subtle ways.
Adversarial strategies characterize litigation, trial courts, political
campaigns, and sometimes labor-management disputes. Command communication
is typical of the military and hierarchical structures. Advertisers, politicians,
parents, friends, and sometimes enemies employ persuasive communication.
Bureaucratic communication often takes place within the framework of
rules and regulations of organizations. That is why bureaucratese often
baffles the clients!
Disciplinary communication is a lingo that has been developed by academic
disciplines (economics, sociology, medicine, etc.) and working professions
often to achieve economy and monopoly. It mystifies the uninitiated and
keeps them out of the conversation of "the experts".
What is the magic of dialogue? In contrast to all of the above, dialogue
begins with the assumption that "truth" or "meaning"
is not the monopoly of any single person or group. Truth (with a small
"t") must be therefore negotiated among contending parties.
To do so, it is necessary for the parties to any dispute to enter an
open-minded conversation on their conflicting perceptions of the situation
at issue. Dialogue is thus a contemplative process in which parties to
a dispute listen more than talk.
The listening process leads each side to question its own truth claims
in the light of what is heard or examined. Dialogue is thus a kind of foreplay
before serious negotiations start. Its aim is to build trust and mutual
understanding before a common ground can be found for the compromises that
are often needed to reach a settlement.
From an economic perspective, dialogue may be considered as social capital
formation. Like all capital investment, it takes time to reap its fruits.
In other words, it has a gestation period, after which through cooperative
learning and decision making, the stakeholders can collaborate in a project
with higher productivity than otherwise possible.
In its peacebuilding projects, the Toda Institute has employed a tablet
of Ten Commandments for Dialogue that has proved useful in complex situations
of conflict. The tablet received considerable attention at the Vancouver
Here it is, dear reader, for your consideration. You may modify it in
any way you wish. Unlike the other Ten Commandments, this one is subject
1. Honor others and listen to them deeply with all your heart and mind.
2. Focus on the agenda while seeking the common ground for consensus,
but avoid groupthink by acknowledging and honoring the diversity of views.
3. Refrain from irrelevant or intemperate interventions.
4. Acknowledge others' contributions to the discussion before relating
your own remarks to theirs.
5. Remember that silence also speaks; speak only when you have a contribution
to make by posing a relevant question, presenting a fact, making or clarifying
a point, or advancing the discussion to greater specificity or consensus.
6. Identify the critical points of difference for further deliberation.
7. Never distort other views in order to advance your own, try to restate
others' positions to their own satisfaction before presenting your own
8. Formulate the agreements on any agenda item before moving on to the
9. Draw out the implications of an agreement for group policy and action.
10. Thank your colleagues for their contribution.
Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the
University of Hawaii and director of the Toda
Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.