Peacebuilding Practices: Part 3 – Understanding, Not Persuasion: Interfaith Dialogue for Contentious Topics

reflective structured dialogue for interfaith cooperation

Welcome to Part Three of our series on peacebuilding practices at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace. Like the posts on Relational Space and Paraphrasing, this one begins with a friendship, and like those other two, it seeks to answer how we engage conflict in peaceful, constructive ways. In this post, we’ll look at Dialogue methodologies used to help us talk about tough subjects – like Israel and Palestine.  Even for those of us who believe deeply in interreligious peacebuilding, this is an explosive topic. If you have strong views, the possibility of having a civil conversation with someone of opposing views can seem impossible. For many, the solution is avoiding the topic altogether. But conflicts avoided don’t go away; they fester. 

At HIU, Chaplain Aida Mansoor and Dr. Deena Grant are friends and colleagues. Aida is a practicing Muslim, and Deena is an Orthodox Jew. At HIU they have discussed many aspects of interfaith cooperation. When it came to Israel and Palestine though, out of fear of damaging their relationship, they danced around the topic rather than really discussing it. 

Deena and Aida have clear perspectives and strong feelings about the conflict, and both have spent time in the region. As brave women who care about each other and about their role as educators, they were each asking themselves how they could best serve students when hard topics needed to be addressed. They decided to engage in a facilitated dialogue about Israel and Palestine as both a way of strengthening their own friendship and building their dialogue skills on one of the hardest topics out there.  

Reflective Structured Dialogue For Building Interfaith Cooperation

So how does a “university for religion and peace” facilitate dialogue on such a contentious issue? There are a number of approaches, but one of the most effective is called “Reflective Structured Dialogue.” This very deliberate way of communicating was developed by a Massachusetts-based group called Essential Partners, which drew on methods used in family therapy. Using a trained facilitator, conversation partners can talk about almost any topic because they agree on certain ground rules, including: 

  • We will allow others to finish their speaking and not interrupt. 
  • We will speak for ourselves and allow others to do the same, with no pressure to represent or explain a whole group. 
  • Our goal is understanding, not persuasion. When we disagree, we will ask questions to help us understand other viewpoints, not to condemn or persuade.   
  • We will endeavor to stay engaged with the dialogue, even if we hear things that make us uncomfortable.  

A facilitated dialogue is not a spur-of-the-moment thing. First, you need a neutral place. We chose a meeting room off campus at a local library. Second, Reflective Structured Dialogue emphasizes personal preparation. So before Aida and Deena even got to the library, as facilitator, I had helped them each understand the ethos that would govern the experience.  They arrived at accepting that dialogue is not debate, and that the goal of the experience was to share perspectives and understand others, not to persuade or silence each other. Knowing that each of them accepted this spirit of dialogue reduced the risk for both. They knew I would both guide the conversation and hold them to the ground rules. 

As with any dialogue, I spent a long time designing the questions. These were sequenced to allow Deena and Aida to begin by telling stories of their own experience, and then progressing to questions that asked them to investigate their own perspective. There was a lot of silent thinking time engineered into the experience, so neither would need to tune out the other while they formulated their own answer to the question.     

Reflective Structured Dialogue is, as the name implies, very structured. Rather than being confining, this structure allows people to feel safe enough to speak about what matters to them, and to really hear what matters to others. Aida heard Deena speak about her ingrained fear that without a strong Israel, Jews will have no safe refuge if they are persecuted again, as they have been so many times throughout history. Deena heard Aida speak about dehumanizing experiences she had traveling in Israel as a Muslim, and her anguish for the many people for whom those experiences are life-long. 

Both spoke of the trauma from past violence and fear of ongoing violence that blights countless interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, to the detriment of all. They share a dream for the people of the Holy Land to live together in harmony as neighbors and friends, appreciating their diversity and healing their collective pain. They can’t yet see a way to bring that about. When violence is the status quo, choosing to forego the familiarity of violence in favor of a formless peace is an enormous risk. They acknowledged that all that trauma and fear makes it nearly impossible to collaboratively invent a shared future. They recognized that understanding each other does not immediately create peace, but that no sustainable peace can be built without a foundation of understanding.  

Did Deena and Aida’s dialogue materially change anything in Israel-Palestine? No. There was no expectation that it would. But it did increase their empathy for the experience of the other, an empathy they will reflect back to their own religious communities. Furthermore, empathy can make a violent status quo seem less inevitable. It can grow to become the courage necessary to begin that collaborative invention.  

As a “university for religion and peace,” we use practices like Reflective Structured Dialogue for seemingly impossible conversations. That’s the how. As for why we do it, it is because understanding and empathy across lines of difference are the precursors of the courage and creativity needed for peaceful change.  

About Hartford International
As a pioneering, interreligious, international university, Hartford International has helped thousands of people find peace within, and many thousands more find peace with each other. At HIU, we engage in robust religious studies, including a Master of Arts in International Peacebuilding, and meaningful interfaith dialogue to deepen our beliefs, respect our differences, and help bring peace to the world.