The Sustained Dialogue Model

The following was submitted to NCDD by Harold Saunders. For more information about Sustained Dialogue, go to the website of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, at

Sustained Dialogue

The process of sustained dialogue is a conceptualization of two decades of experience with dialogues among citizens outside government in conflictual relationships. What we present here is a process for transforming and building the relationships that are essential to democratic political and economic practice. It is not simply a methodology.

Hal Saunders and NCDD's Sandy Heierbacher.

It differs from most other processes in interactive conflict resolution in two ways that must be read together:

First, sustained dialogue focuses on relationships?relationships that may have torn a community apart; relationships that may be dysfunctional because of the way they have evolved over time; relationships that may appear calm on the surface but are undergirded by destructive interactions for a variety of reasons. Sustained dialogue therefore works on a dual agenda: (1) Of course, it focuses on practical problems and issues of concern to all participants. They are what cause people to come together. (2) It simultaneously and explicitly focuses on the relationships that create and block resolution of those problems.

To be sure, problem-solving workshops and other vehicles in interactive conflict resolution cannot help but reveal the dynamics of relationships and ways of improving them. But sustained dialogue is not a problem-solving workshop; it is a sustained interaction to change relationships, both in the dialogue room and then in the larger community. The focus is primarily on transforming and building relationships so that they may effectively deal with practical problems.

Because sustained dialogue focuses on the relationships that divide groups, it operates within a carefully defined concept of relationship which provides both an analytical and an operational framework. Participants will not easily talk about their relationships as such, but the dialogue reveals their dynamics?to participants as well as to moderators.

For the sake of analytical precision and operational use, we have defined relationship in terms of five components?five arenas of interaction in constantly changing combinations within and between the parties interacting: (1) identity, defined in human as well as in physical characteristics?as the life experience that brings each participant to the present moment; (2) interests, both substantive and psychological?what people care about?that bring people into the same space and into a sense of their interdependence in achieving their goals; (3) power, defined not only as control over superior resources and the actions of others but as the capacity of citizens acting together to influence the course of events without great material resources; (4) perceptions, misperceptions, and stereotypes about the other(s); and (5) the patterns of interaction among those involved, including respect for certain limits on behavior in dealing with others.

Power is, of course, an important component of a relationship, but much of the time other components are more likely to determine how a person or group acts or to shape the character of an interaction. But power must be defined much more broadly than it has been. We define it as the capacity to influence the course of events?not as the ability to control or coerce.

The concept of relationship can be both a diagnostic and an operational tool. One can organize analysis of a relationship in this framework, and then one can actually get inside any of these components in dialogue to enhance understanding or to change an interaction. In dialogue, for instance, identity can be explored, and a person can be humanized or seen in a different light as misperceptions and stereotypes give way to face-to face pictures.

One's own sense of identity can even grow as one sees oneself through others' eyes. A key in the philosophy of some indigenous peoples in South Africa is: ?I am a person through other persons.? Common interests can be discovered. In that light, patterns of interaction can change from confrontational to cooperative. As respect for another's identity grows, individuals impose limits on their behavior toward the other to reflect that respect. Those changes also introduce new elements into the equation of power. As one understands that dynamic process of continuous interaction, one learns that power may, in part, emerge from careful and sensitive conduct of the process, rather than only from wielding material resources.

How people relate lies at the heart of dysfunctional or productive communities. Ways of relating can be destructive or constructive. Ways of relating?the unwritten understandings and ?covenants? that people develop to govern their interactions in predictable ways?are the essence of what some practitioners call "post-conflict peace-building" and what some social scientists in analyzing economic development call ?social capital.?

Second in describing the difference between sustained dialogue and other approaches, the effort to transform these destructive relationships is a continuous process that unfolds through a series of recognizable phases. This statement is a conceptualization from two decades of experience of what human beings seem to do when they address their destructive relationships. Process implies not a single meeting but a flow of meetings, each one building on the preceding meetings, and what happens between meetings may be as important as what happens in meetings.

Designed as a process, sustained dialogue provides a sense of purpose, direction, and destination for participants willing to come together time after time in an open-ended process. That process creates (1) a cumulative agenda, with questions raised at the end of one meeting providing the agenda for the next; (2) a common body of knowledge, including understanding of each side's experiences, concerns, and interests; (3) new ways of talking and relating that enable participants to work together; and (4) opportunities to work together that could not have been foreseen at the beginning of the process. The process must remain open-ended; requiring overly precise definition of objectives at the outset can prematurely close doors.

As a process that develops over time through a sequence of meetings, sustained dialogue seems to develop through five recognizable stages, reflecting the progression of experiences through which relationships evolve. The stages are not rigid, unidirectional, nor linear. One may enter the process at different points depending on the relationships and experience that already exist, but the work of each of the five stages must be accomplished. They are presented as guideposts to the work that needs to be done.

This process of sustained dialogue to transform unproductive relationships was born from situations of extreme stress, but it reflects a more universal aspect of the nature and evolution of human relationships. As such, it has been used across a spectrum of experiences. This assertion opens the opportunity to use this process in a variety of community, corporate, regional, and national settings.

Stages of Sustained Dialogue

The five stages of sustained dialogue are a conceptualization of two decades of experience in dialogue among citizens outside government. They reflect the progression of interactions when individuals from different groups meet repeatedly over time. They are not rigid; they are intended as an analytical and operational framework to guide moderators and participants alike?to provide a sense of direction and a check on important tasks that might have been skipped over.

Stage One: Deciding to Engage

Either people on different sides of a conflict decide to reach out to each other, or a third party creates a space for dialogue and invites conflicting parties to come together there. The conversations held and the connections formed as citizens talk about the possibility and potential purposes of a dialogue begin to develop sinews that can provide support for the work of the dialogue when it moves forward. People decide to engage in dialogue?often with great difficulty?because they feel a compelling need to build or change a relationship to resolve problems that hurt or could hurt their interests intolerably. These participants are themselves a microcosm of their communities and of the network that may ultimately be woven around the dialogue.

Stage Two: Mapping Relationships and Naming Problems

Participants come together to talk?to map and name the elements of those problems that bring them together and the relationships responsible for creating and dealing with them. In early meetings, they vent their grievances and anger with each other in a scattershot way. This venting provides both the ingredients for an ultimate, precise agenda and an opportunity for moderators to analyze and ?map? the interactions?to begin understanding the dynamics of the relationships. As a senior South African colleague said, this catharsis seems to clear the air and to enable participants to move to more focused talk. This stage ends?at least for a time?when someone says: ?What we really need to focus on is . . . .? At that moment, the quality of the talk changes as participants talk less at each other and more with each other about a problem they agree affects them all.

Stage Three: Probing Problems and Relationships

In much more disciplined exchanges, participants probe specific problems to uncover the dynamics of underlying relationships with these aims: (1) to confirm the definition of the problem they have agreed to focus on; (2) to answer the questions raised by the problem and to probe the relationships underlying these problems; (3) to lay out broadly possible ways into those relationships to change them; (4) to weigh those possibilities and to come to a sense of direction to guide next steps; (5) to weigh the consequences of moving in that direction against the consequences of doing nothing; and (6) to decide whether to try designing such change.

Stage Four: Scenario-building

Together, participants design a scenario of interacting steps to be taken in the political arena to draw elements of the community into a process designed to precipitate practical steps that can change troublesome relationships. They ask four questions: What are the obstacles to moving in the direction we have chosen? What steps could overcome those obstacles? Who could take those steps? How could we sequence those steps so that they interact?one building on another?to generate momentum behind the plan for acting?

Stage Five: Acting Together

Participants devise ways to put that scenario into the hands of those who can act on it. The purpose, to repeat, is above all to use the action plan to build a more coherent and interactive community?to activate the relationships that in themselves become a resource in enabling the community to function more effectively, reliably, and peacefully.

This work requires substantial deliberation on the part of participants before they proceed. They will need to consider whether the situation is safe and ready for such a course of action, whether the necessary capacities are available in the community, and if not, what might be done to create those capacities. They may have to consider whether they will endanger themselves or others by proceeding.

At one end of the spectrum are those communities or countries where present or past violence threatens their integrity and even their existence?and certainly blocks their capacity to build a better future. As one moves across that spectrum, one may find communities that, in one way or another, have either not been torn apart by violence or that have ended violence by agreement but have not addressed or healed the deep divisions that caused the violence and remain under the surface. Next, are communities that may be living in peace and may be working together at least in minimal ways where there is just enough trust among citizens to permit them to work together.

The level of trust within a community is referred to in some quarters as ?bonding social capital"?unwritten codes of behavior within a community where people recognize most other residents. (Michael Woolcock, ?The Place of Social Capital in Understanding Social and Economic Outcomes,? Canadian Journal of Policy Research, Vol. 2, No. 1, spring 2001, p. 13).

Moving toward the other end of the spectrum are those otherwise coherent communities that recognize that to meet their needs, they must interact in different ways with communities outside their circle of trust?the distant market town dominated by unsympathetic groups, the town that lives upstream from their vital source of water, the town through which they must pass in order to cross a bridge, mountain, or border. This is what the social scientists call ?bridging? or ?public? social capital?the capacity to develop the norms of relating to ?strangers.?

We introduce these thoughts here to make the point that the sustained dialogue process is not limited to use by those in the field of resolving conflict; it is, of course, important in resolving deep-rooted human conflict, but it is also integral to peace-building after conflict and to the malfunctioning relationships of underdevelopment not preceded by violent conflict. Again, its difference from many other important approaches in the fields of conflict resolution and development is its focus on how people relate and its positing of a process that conceptualizes how people seem to change their ways of relating. This capacity to change ways of relating and experimenting to tackle new problems or opportunities may be the critical element in a community's capacity to sustain development over time.

Because this is an open-ended political process, someone must serve as steward of that process in all its aspects. We call that person the ?moderator.? Performance in that role involves the following functions: convener, facilitator who guides the discussions, legitimizer, educator, connector, and financial supporter. Often it will be desirable to have co-moderators.

This process, of course, contains elements that appear in other processes as well. Its distinctive niche?to underscore the point?is its focus on groups whose relationships make productive collaboration impossible at this moment. It recognizes the need to deal with relational issues both in the dialogue room and outside?whether participants would recognize that need explicitly or not?before other work can be done. This process does not end with the signing of a peace agreement. It continues into the post-conflict peace-building phase to deal with the complicated task of reconciliation among communities and economic development for all involved.


Return to either the Models & Techniques menu or the top of this page...