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Dialogical Engagement

Respecting local knowledge and building relationships: our participatory and dialogical approach

At the heart of PaCSIA’s work is our participatory and dialogical approach to working with local partners which contributes to a better understanding of issues of conflict and peace through reflective practice, action research and participatory program design and evaluation.
We provide policy-relevant, innovative research results and recommendations, training and capacity-building and evaluation services that are of practical relevance for the sustainable and peaceful development of communities and people in our region.

Examples of our dialogical work include our 2013 “This Is Our Story Project” in which we worked with Australian South Sea Islander communities, Aboriginal Traditional Owners, descendants of plantation owners and local government and community to design a respectful commemoration ceremony to acknowledge the first South Sea Islanders brought to Australian plantations as indentured labourers in 1863. All our work in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea since 2015 is built on principles of dialogical engagement which have helped us to establish relationships across all levels of communities and government.
Dialogical engagement is closely related to the elicitive approach to peacebuilding and training developed by John Paul Lederach. He developed a simple sequence of activities for this elicitive approach to conflict resolution education: the process starts with the discovery of what participants in their setting do when conflict arises. Participants do not use prepared role plays but get together in small groups and talk about real life conflict situations. In the next step they develop their own names, language and categories for the conflict resolution activities that they have identified. This creates ownership and empowerment. In the third stage the participants then evaluate what works in their given context and what does not, and then adapt and recreate processes to deal more effectively with conflict. Finally the new or recreated processes are applied in practice through simulations, or later through application to real conflict situations. Elicitive facilitation is a mutual journey of discovery between facilitators and local participants, in which the cultural, communal and political resources available to local people can be re-constituted, re-invented, re-cycled, re-patterned and re-structured to adapt to new and rapidly changing context.
A purely elicitive approach is not without fault, though. Eliciting information without sharing and presenting knowledge from outside the cultural space of participants misses the opportunity to create innovative conflict resolution processes. It can also inadvertently legitimize the power of certain groups or manifestations of cultural violence. We have experienced on more than one occasion that participants in conflict resolution trainings and interventions expect the facilitators to bring some innovative knowledge or unfamiliar conflict resolution processes to the education experience. While most participants strongly appreciate when their own experience and knowledge is validated and explored, they also come to a workshop or training (often at great expense of personal time and resources) expecting to learn something new or to improve their own mediative capacities.
Peacebuilders who can respond to this need and who are willing to share their own knowledge and expertise when it is requested can create integrated learning experiences that allow for the discovery of new routes through the uncharted waters of conflict. The integration of local and introduced knowledge allows for the creation of new ideas which acknowledge customary ways of resolving conflict and provide innovative ways to break out of self-perpetuating cycles of destructive interaction.
In our understanding dialogue is a process of interpersonal interaction in which participants exchange views and explore each other’s understanding of a situation or phenomenon. Dialogue encourages the emergence of collective thought and moments of mutuality in which the participants turn to each other and engage in an ethical relationship with each other. These interactions can take place as part of problem-solving or deliberation processes but they occur separately from negotiation and decision-making. Often moments of mutuality are precipitated by the exchange of personal stories from some participants and deep listening by others. Dialogue does not aim to create agreements or action plans but they can be by-products of the process or part of a larger deliberation process.

A dialogical approach requires and encourages the development of relationships and trust over time. Respecting local knowledge and agency means that we trust our local partners to know best what works in their communities and that we see ourselves as facilitators and mediators who assist by bringing different parts of a conflict system together to establish further relationships and explore mutuality and difference.