Difficult Dialogues

Online and elsewhere in the public sphere we see increasing polarisation and mutual hostility in the discussion of a range of issues.  Too often people shout entrenched opinions at each other and there is little interest in acknowledging nuance or seeking greater understanding of alternative positions; or people are afraid to speak at all lest they say the wrong thing.

Often, in interfaith spaces, there is a tendency to stick to ‘safe’ topics. This is understandable and indeed, there are many contexts in which this vital to establishing a foundation of common ground and fellow-feeling.  However, interfaith engagement isn’t always about making friends – it’s also about trying to better understand each other and learning to live well with principled differences of opinion about issues that matter to us.

The purpose of our experimental Difficult Dialogues programme is to develop a different kind of engagement on some of the topics we see debated so furiously in the public sphere: one where the primary aim is increased understanding (not consensus); where the emphasis is on listening; and where space is made for nuance and ambivalence.  Participants may not change their basic outlook or opinions or become friends through the process. But importantly, they are able to recognise each other more fully as human beings, gaining a sense of each other’s motivations and intentions, often developing more respect for each other in the process.

Through reflective practice and working with trained facilitators, our Difficult Dialogues seek to:

  • create a sense of trust among participants in the dialogue process
  • build relationships such that people feel safe to express viewpoints that may be deeply challenging to others in the room, and ask questions they may be feeling anxious about
  • create a space for reflective conversation, where participants can listen deeply to one another with the intention of understanding the other person’s point of view, rather than simply reacting to the words they hear
  • develop a willingness amongst participants to learn from one another

Our first venture within this pilot programme has been an initiative with the West of Scotland branch of the Council of Christians and Jews entitled:  Understanding Antisemitism:  Difficult Questions in Jewish Christian Dialogue. This initiative grew out of the recognition both of rising antisemitism and of the fact that there can be confusion, disagreement, and anxiety about what antisemitism consists in, particularly in relation to criticism of the State of Israel.  A group of six Christians and six Jews met numerous times with two facilitators for carefully planned dialogue sessions which moved through a range of topics on the theme, as directed by the group.  Participants all commented on the value of the small, closed and confidential nature of the group, which allowed them to build relationships, trust, and increasing levels of honesty with each session.

One participant commented that the experience has increased their sensitivity, helping them “be aware of the fears, uncertainties, insecurities, prejudices and conditioning that lie beneath the surface” when these issues are discussed. They felt the dialogue provided a safe space for discussing controversial issues that many hadn’t found elsewhere, even in interfaith contexts.  As one participant put it: “I’ve been able to express things in a much more open way than I normally would and still feel respected and listened to.”

At the last session, I felt that a level of honesty had been reached that just wouldn’t have been possible at the beginning

Participants commented on the benefits of the process and various facilitation tools used, saying, for example “it has been a very good way to hear from people properly and to explore topics that are often emotional and hard to feel heard on.” There was also an increase in confidence in understanding and articulating the issues, for example “I now feel much less afraid to discuss this issue. I feel I have a better understanding of a range of perspectives and am better equipped to help others navigate this territory.” This is learning we are keen to build on.