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Using Dialogue To Unite Diverse Groups

By Natalie Shiras, Resident at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA

“A story is the shortest distance between people”. The stories we tell each other may describe the ways that we are similar and different, in our culture, values, character, and more. As we listen and share experiences, we can build relationships and eventually, friendships. Listening to others, particularly others who are different from ourselves, may be the first step to starting a dialogue.

Dialogue is a formal communication process for building trust and understanding between diverse groups of people. Study circles and listening circles are dialogue processes that have been used for a variety of interfaith, intercultural, interracial, and intergenerational groups. Trained facilitators may create safe spaces for telling one’s story by using ground rules such as, “Treat each person with respect, keep confidentiality, avoid interruptions, and maintain an honest and open mind.”

The Circle of Chairs Approach Explained

The Circle of Chairs is an approach to dialogue in which a facilitator welcomes everyone, sets the context, and reviews ground rules. The participants then gather into small groups of 6 or 7 persons for an hour to reflect on a difficult situation; they may propose solutions or next steps. Then the participants come together to share their responses and learn through the collective wisdom and intelligence of the whole group.

Some participants in the Circle of Chairs have reported that the dialogues have helped them to imagine new ways of communicating and engaging more effectively in difficult situations. On college student remarked, “You are an expert in your own experience. You don’t need a PhD. Nobody else can speak your experience as you do.”

The Purpose

If a dialogue’s purpose is to recognize diversity and inclusion, what might the process look like? Sitting in circles is helpful. Going around the circle, everyone may respond in turn to a question such as “Who is included or pushed away?” Going around the circle in the opposite direction would change the participants’ perspective as they answer a follow-up question such as “How might this be transformed so that everyone belongs?”. Participants always have the option to “Pass,” or decline to speak.

It Empowers and Builds Trust in Groups

During the last seven years, one local group has held 25 interracial and intergenerational dialogues on race. There are 50-60 participants who attend from local organizations, faith communities, retirement communities, police departments, government offices, and college students.

Over time, repeated dialogues on similar topics can build trust and understanding. People learn to listen and to appreciate different people’s experiences. Having an equal opportunity to speak their own truth is also empowering. Learning the formal process of dialogue helps to build friendships as the participants imagine and then create change.

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