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Dialogue and Facilitation

This module was created by Ken Cloke, Wendy Wood, and Scott Martin. It will provide concepts and tools to enable users to: 

This module will address the following Core Competencies

  • Establish conditions for learning and transformation
  • Support skillful communication
  • Support healing and restoration during and after conflict

Our views and beliefs are limited to our own finite thoughts, memories, and experiences, together with the meaning we give them.

Dialogue offers the opportunity to create a shared pool of thoughts and ideas from which greater meaning and perspective can be achieved. It is an invitation for learning and participation in communication that seeks to understand and unite around commonalities, differences, and conflicts.

Dialogue is a space where borders are created, acknowledged, respected, and consensually crossed.  More than simply waiting to respond to argue, prove, or demonstrate a point, dialogue is focused on the sharing of information with the goal of achieving greater understanding

Agreeing to Agree

Conventional wisdom tells us that a ‘healthy debate’ is required whenever there is an emotionally charged, challenging topic where stakeholders possess differing views. In a debate, each side tries to counter the other person to get their position across while over-powering their opponent with cunning, wit, sometimes facts.  Regardless of who determines themselves to be “the winner”, a peaceful detente is reluctantly negotiated by “agreeing to disagree.”

Dialogue, on the other hand, holds at its basic nature an implicit value to “agree to agree”- which is to say all parties will do their best to listen to find commonality and greater understanding.
Here are other ways in which debate and dialogue differ.


  • Opposition. Sides are opposed and try to prove the other side wrong
  • The only goal is to score points and win
  • Each person listens to refute and find flaws
  • Participants are adversaries defending their positions
  • Results in further solidification and entrenchment of beliefs
  • Process comes to an end and conclusion


  • Collaborative. Each side works together to develop common understanding
  • The goal is to find common ground and better solutions
  • Everyone listens to learn and relate to each other
  • Participants are partners to discover shared interests/values
  • Promotes re-examination and transformation of beliefs
  • Process is open-ended and ongoing

Note: For dialogues where the goal is mutual understanding, not discussion about solutions, go to Circle Process Module.


Dialogue is an effective tool for addressing conflict in a non-confrontational format which encourages empathetic expressing and shared learning.  Convening regular dialogue sessions, both formal and informal, is important for building resilient teams working within mission-driven organizations.

Next Steps

Reflection Questions to Convene and Design a Successful Dialogue

The first step to convening a successful dialogue is asking the following questions:

  • Who needs to be in the room to make this an effective, productive discussion?
  • How do we ensure that all stakeholder voices are represented (including those with whom we disagree)?
  • What is the best venue and time of day for holding the dialogue?  Do the location or time promote inclusion or create barriers to participation?
  • What is the best format for promoting productive conversation while maintaining a safe environment for authentic expression?

Note: For sensitive issues, it is best to break up large groups into smaller groups of 6 -10 participants. This helps reduce ‘grandstanding’ and encourages participation from those who are uncomfortable speaking in large groups or where there may be repercussions for doing so.

  • How much time do we need?

Note: There is a danger in holding a dialogue without allowing adequate time for participants to articulate their ideas. A range of 40 min for a short dialogue to 3 hours for more complex issues is generally most effective. Some dialogues can be designed to last all day, in which case regular breaks are important.


Roles for Simple Dialogue Structure

Lead Facilitator(s): Coordinates and convenes large groups- often speaking directly to key participants prior to an event. Explains structure and general guidelines. Leads large group sharing. Consider a co-facilitation model with gender and racial balancing of lead facilitators.

Facilitator: Leads small group discussions by establishing a framework, helping to set an agenda for the conversation and keeps the dialogue moving.

Recorder: Records important information shared by the small group members.  Reads back information at the end of each cycle to the group to ensure ideas were captured accurately.

Timekeeper: Helps keep track of time if members have agreed to only share for a designated amount of time. Agree ahead of time on what method you would like the Timekeeper to indicate politely that the speaker’s time is up.

Reporter: Reports on important information shared during the dialogue while being careful not to assign names to who shared what. The small group should agree on what information collected by the reporter will be shared to the full group.

Mediator: The is an optional role which can be helpful for particularly challenging or emotionally charged topics.  Disputants may be asked if they’d like to step aside to resolve issues that may be off-topic or not productive in the context of the group discussion.

Process Observer:  This person is asked to take notes on their observations of the process or either the small group discussion or large group process in order to provide feedback and improve the process.  This is especially important with longer processes spanning multiple dialogues and gatherings.

Simple Dialogue Process

Step 1. Welcome by Lead Facilitator who thanks all participants as a large group, outlines the process for the dialogue, and answers any initial questions. Identify mediators in the room and their role (if any).

Step 2. Form Small Groups of 6-10 participants to gather together either randomly or intentionally to promote diversity in each small group.

Step 3. Assign Roles by deciding who will be the Facilitator (if one is not already designated), Recorder, Timekeeper, Reporter, Process Observer (optional)

Step 4. Introductions. Give each person the opportunity to share how they would like to be called and a short piece of personal information.

First Name: the name you want to be called
Second Name: one word which describes you right now
The table facilitator can model this by introducing themselves first, “My name is Martin and my second name is Gratitude.”

Step 5. Check-In Round. Everyone is given the opportunity to share briefly thoughts about the subject without discussion or interjection of other members.  This can be done in order of seating or as participants feel comfortable sharing.

Step 6. Set Agenda. Facilitator groups ideas expressed and sets an agenda of what to discuss with the help and agreement of the group members.

Step 7. Discussion. Facilitator assists participants in sharing their views on subjects and ideas presented.  The process can vary depending on the comfort level and style of the facilitator which could range from making a list or actively calling of participants based on an even distribution of voices.

Step 8. Review. and confirm Recorder’s notes with participants and decide what is the most relevant inform to share with the large group.

Step 9: Report out.  Lead Facilitator asks Reporter from each group to share key points to the whole group.

Step 10. Feedback. Process observer shares feedback with the group about the process they observed.

Facilitator Skills

The word ‘Facilitator’ comes from the Latin root ‘FACIL’ which means ‘EASY’, so this role can be seen as ‘one who makes things easier’.  Rather than a referee who controls what is said in a group by imposing rules, a facilitator can be seen more as a coach who encourages sharing of ideas.

One of the most important roles of the facilitator is as the primary listener.  While we can’t force anyone to listen, the facilitator can model listening for others.

Tips for Expert Listening
(Learn more about active listening here.)

  • Unearthing Emotions -Set the tone: emotions are part of the conversation/process and are welcomed, will be honored, treated with respect.  Emotions provide important information about the other person’s perspective/experience of events.
  • Listen openly, actively, deeply, pushing aside your own thoughts and “agenda.”  Relax your body, make welcoming, caring eye contact. Show the speaker you intend to listen.
  • Listen for the emotion and allow the speaker to express their emotions.
  • Make room for the speaker’s vulnerability.
  • Suspend judgment/listen without judgment.
  • Empathetic listening.  Heart-centered and sensory listening beyond just hearing- listening from the speaker’s frame of reference.
  • Reflective listening.  Reflect back the feelings elicited in an open, curious, caring tone using non-judgmental language—ask the speaker to name the emotion, if she feels comfortable.  If speaker is unable, you can try to name the emotions.Naming emotions has the effect of naturally lowering the heart rate.
  • Take your cue from the speaker—listen as much as you can and refrain from interrupting to satisfy your own curiosity or to demonstrate your own skills as a listener.  If helpful, ask open-ended questions from a place of curiosity and the intent to understand.
  • Notice your own emotional responses and whether you are being triggered.  Then put them aside temporarily and remain present, listening completely. Listen without your own answer running.
  • Stay out of the common defend/attack spiral by waiting 15-30 seconds before responding.  Check-in with yourself by writing your thoughts down or sharing the idea first in your head.  See if you still want to share; if so, try soften your tone.
  • Let the speaker drive their story.  Refrain from interrupting or inserting your own associations/thoughts/solutions.
  • Be aware of the speaker’s comfort level sharing their emotions and be mindful of the context in which the conversation occurs (employer/employee, supervisor/supervisee, group dynamics, other perceived power or hierarchical differentials.)
  • After the person has finished speaking and you have listened fully, you can assess:  what do your emotional responses tell you about yourself? Your experience with this person/situation/conflict?


Books and Articles

Bohm, David (1996) On Dialogue New York, NY. Routledge.
Tammy Lenski, "5 Bad Listening Habits and How to Break Them"
Patterson, K. Grinny, J. McMillan R. and Switlzer A. (2012) Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes Are High. McGraw Hill.

Organizations The Compassionate Listening Project