Dialogue and Facilitation

The Value of Dialogue and Facilitation 

Created by Ken Cloke, Wendy Wood and Scott Martin, 2019

Utilize dialogue and facilitation to promote healthy environments and build resilience

  • Understand the difference between dialogue and debate
  • Successfully convene and design dialogues to ensure the right people participate
  • Understand how to use dialogue to address conflict, promote healthy communication, and build resilient organizations

Reflection Questions

For successfully convening dialogues

Tools and Tips

Roles & Steps Dialogue and Facilitator Skills

Seeking Understanding, Commonalities and Differences

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: [read more]


  • 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

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.[/read]

Reflection Questions

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.

Tools and Tips

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.Read More

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. Read More

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 Read More


  • 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. Listen in a way that you can ‘change your mimd’. 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.


The Compassionate Listening Project

Need help facilitating difficult dialogues?

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