Frequently Asked Questions
Here we answer some questions that dialogue facilitators often hear about their role, who they are, and what they do. We describe seperately who dialogue facilitators are, and the community of practice they belong to at: About Dialogue Facilitators.
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Questions & Answers
Interactions among typically vulnerable communities (who usually present different internal dynamics), sophisticated commercial actors (whose life cycle, socioeconomic effects, and footprint may last for decades), and different levels of government (which can be present or practically absent) can be - especially in combination with a history of political, social and cultural tensions, distrust, and a lack of information - highly charged and complex.
In this setting, dialogue facilitators are able to play in a role that none of the participants can – as non-partisan consensus-builders. Facilitators do so by leading processes to help reduce the often significant power and information imbalances among the parties, navigate the complexity, and support rebuilding trust, respect, and constructive engagement among those at the table. Whether this is possible, and the degree to which it is, depends on the particular context, and the reason for engaging a dialogue facilitator, such as preserving a relationship or addressing cumulative impacts.
Depending on where you live and what terms you use locally, there may or may not be a difference. The community of practice housed at ACCESS Facility has chosen the broad term dialogue facilitation to describe (as inclusively as possible) the many roles the members of the community of practice can be called on to play as they design and implement consensus-based processes.
These may be more or less structured, shorter or longer term, operating inside or outside formal dispute resolution processes, more focused on resolution of a particular challenge or more oriented toward systemic solutions, and so on. In general terms, dialogue facilitators help people create and make good use of inclusive and legitimate processes for exploring challenges and agreeing to solutions.
Sometimes a convener (such as an international financial institution) pays. Sometimes a company pays. Sometimes a government (such as the government hosting the investment, or the government or development agency of a third country) pays. Sometimes other organizations pay, possibly in-kind with meeting spaces or other support. Often a number of funders pool monies to pay. Who pays for the dialogue facilitator’s services varies depending on the unique circumstances and context.
In all cases, the non-partisan role of the dialogue facilitator cannot be compromised by who pays for their services. At the start of the dialogue process, the dialogue facilitator will gain the trust of the parties through his or her commitment to play a non-partisan role, and will be transparent about who pays for their services.
Dialogue facilitators specialize in consensus-based processes among communities, companies, governments, and others. Their process expertise is transferable across industries. That is, dialogue facilitators are process experts, not industry experts. At the same time, some may have considerable experience in particular industries or geographies.
The consensus-based processes designed and implemented by dialogue facilitators are a means for communities to be empowered, by changing the terms of engagement between community members, representatives of the company, government, and civil society organizations. Facilitated dialogue helps ensure that communities have the space to voice their concerns, share experiences and participate in the decisions that affect them.
Where necessary, dialogue facilitators support building community members’ capacity, and that of all parties, to participate in the dialogue on an equitable basis. Dialogue facilitators take particular care for any participants who may face risks in coming to the table, such as vulnerable or marginalized groups (women, children, indigenous groups, ethnic or religious minorities, and others.)
Dialogue facilitators strive for rights-compatible, interest-based solutions. A rights-compatible solution accords with rights and freedoms recognized or declared in international frameworks and national legislation, and sets out rights and responsibilities of communities, companies, governments and other parties at the table. An interest-based solution addresses the fears, concerns and needs of each of the parties.
The act of participating in a facilitated dialogue is itself a protection of the human right to participate in public life, and supports the right to self-determination, rights of minorities, right to freedom of opinion, information and expression, right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and many more.
By no means does participation in a facilitated dialogue process restrain the rights of communities to access any national or international venue to claim their rights, if the facilitated dialogue process does not resolve their basic interests and needs.
Many if not most instances of dialogue facilitation involve a high level of distrust. For example, dialogue may be attempted iwhen community members or civil society organizations have a history of contentious relations with companies and governments – such as filing ten or fifteen or more lawsuits, lodging complaints with administrative agencies, or failing in attempts at dialogue.
Facilitated dialogue led by someone the parties trust who also has the experience and expertise to act, has the greatest chance of rebuilding trust among the parties and finding a way forward. Some of the case stories in the Case Story Library document how dialogue facilitators have supported the incremental rebuilding of trust where at first it was entirely absent. Chevron in the Niger Delta, and the Tintaya dialogue in Peru are good examples.
In relations with communities, compliance with the letter of the law is just one part of a company’s presence, and does not address the complexity arising from how a company’s activity inevitably interacts with local and national power dynamics and decision-making processes. It’s not simply about what a company does (complying with the law), but also how a company does it (with fairness, transparency, respect, caring and broad accountability).
Typically, the risks of community opposition, demands, and liability are higher when companies refuse to engage in facilitated dialogue. Participating in a facilitated dialogue and the heightened transparancy that goes along with it is a signal of trust.
A consensus-based process led by an experienced dialogue facilitator the parties trust is a way to move away from opposing positions and toward compatible options and reasons for mutually respectful and constructive engagement. It is a way to explore a shared vision and ultimately a way forward that also meets the interests and rights of the company.
Facilitated dialogue can transform a complex situation, usually scalable to violence and vulnerable to external triggers, and shift its dynamics to constructive engagement.
For example, ‘the success’ of a dialogue process can be characterized by shifting the dynamics between two parties from arguing with each other about the cause of a disease, to two parties working together to fight that disease, as shown in the Nicaragua case story. This shift untails unpacking assumptions the parties hold about each other, and a long-term vision and platform for dialogue, with mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement.
Facilitated dialogue is usually not a one-time interaction, but instead an ongoing, iterative process. Relationships are built incrementally by the decisions individuals make and the actions they take (or don’t take) over time; trust can be lost overnight and can take years to rebuild.
Facilitated dialogue is a means of guiding these progressive and cumulative interactions to build a productive relationship, rather than letting interactions occur that may otherwise lead to significant problems.
Ideally, a dialogue facilitator can be brought in to help before problems arise. Addressing issues early on before the project begins is likely to be more successful as well as cost-effective for all parties, than reacting later on after tensions have escalated.
Communities and companies that fear or anticipate violence between different communities, and between the company and those many communities, can agree to engage a facilitator before operations begin. Perhaps more important, early engagement helps build sound governance for management of local resources and other issues that worry communities involved in investment projects.
Dialogue facilitators can also be engaged after tensions have escalated in complex settings and relationships have broken down. In these situations, the scope of what facilitated dialogue can achieve depends on the degree of distrust and the specific goal in engaging the facilitator, and will almost certainly require more time than early engagement facilitation. A number of the case stories in the ACCESS Case Story Library demonstrate that even in dire circumstances, dialogue processes can successfully change the dynamics of the parties’ interactions and set the terms for more constructive interactions.
Although scoping can be challenging, in general, the maxim of "more is better" applies to the number of parties at the table when they are directly affected and committed to resolving the issue. The same is true for which communities should be at the table, both directly and indirectly affected.
The Community of Practice of dialogue facilitators is a program of ACCESS Facility, and a nonprofit, noncommercial entity. It is not a broker of facilitator’s services. We talk more about the community of practice, its goals, and the organizations who founded it in the About Dialogue Facilitators section.
We’re glad you asked, and that you support the Community of Practice’s goals. The founding members of the community are in the process of reaching out to their peers. The membership will grow as that process proceeds.
We are committed to mentoring and training peace builders, commercial mediators, and other conflict resolution professionals to grow the number of highly qualified experts around the world so that dialogue facilitation can better contribute to constructive engagement and more productive relationships.
Please contact any of the profiled dialogue facilitatorsdirectly to express your interest in learning more, or contact the ACCESS Secretariat. We look forward to hearing from you.