09/17/2014 03:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Struggle Towards Peace

"In reality there is nothing glamorous, naive or idealistic about peace. Peace is not a dream. It is hard work. It is a path that we must all choose and then persevere in." - Oscar Arias Sánchez, Nobel Laureate in Peace

The art of getting your point across and being open for the view of others at the same time -- this is constructive dialogue. To have a dialogue one has to show up, show oneself and clearly see someone else. This can be organized in different ways. There can be differences in the setting and structure, the environment, in which communication takes place. There can be differences in the manner in which one expresses oneself, and even differences in how someone takes in the expression of the other.

Sometimes direct talks are simply not the answer. I am thinking of cases in which the highly emotional states of people involved makes communication hard, if not impossible. Not because of the unwillingness to talk and listen, but rather of having no channel to mutually express one's inner feelings and thoughts in a very tense situation -- no means to connect on a deeper level of a shared or different human experience. If there's no bridge to connect strongly opposite parties into communication, the likeliness of dialogue will be close to zero.

A beautiful example of this is a story of family conflict resolution between Paul Ekman, Ph.D. and his wife. In every relationship there are moments of high tension -- potential burning issues which need to be discussed, because ignoring them will only make the situation worse. Ekman and his wife have two clear 'rules' of conduct for these kind of circumstances. First of all, if one knows the topic is controversial, don't immediately start talking about it. Instead tell your partner that you wish to discuss something controversial. Then the other person is more prepared for the kind of talk that's going to take place. And one is given the possibility to say: "Now is not a good time. Let's do it tomorrow."

To be in the right state of mind for a dialogue is important, because you want a difficult talk to go as good as possible. The announcement of 'we need to talk about something controversial' is also a signal not to react impulsively. Ekman states by operating in this manner, he's able to focus all of his consciousness on responding constructively. He was given time to prepare himself for a possible emotional talk. And therefore increased the chance of working a difficult matter out without escalating into a harmful dispute.

But, even when warned in advance and being well prepared, one can get emotional and overreact. Not by choice, it just happens. What's being told can be very hard to hear and take in. In a situation where Ekman and/or his wife are starting to become really angry there's a second 'rule' of conduct they have agreed to -- express that things are getting too hot and propose to write each other a letter.

One of the two will start and write a letter in which her/his perspective on the situation at hand is articulated. Then after a night of sleep has passed, look to one's own letter carefully again and where necessary rewrite before giving it to your partner for the first time. The one who receives the letter will read it and then start to write a letter back the next day. Then also sleep on it for reflection time, before giving the responding letter back. And do this procedure as many times over until the conflict is actually resolved.

When Ekman explains the writing a letter procedure in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, he and his wife were already married for twenty-seven years. In that time this intervention was only needed in three circumstances. More importantly, every time it was very helpful according to Ekman. They managed to construct a way of speaking to one another when dialogue seemed impossible at first.

Question Bridge Black Males is a transmedia art project that seeks to represent and redefine black male identity in America. Black men ask questions which are recorded on video and shown to other black men. The men who have been shown a video with a question then answer by video too. Artists and founders of Question Bridge -- Hank Willis Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair -- then create a public video in which they combine questions with corresponding answers -- a wonderful intense conversation without meeting in person. Take a look at this trailer. This project has also extended to an online tool, the Question Bridge App.

Next to being a conversation between black men, it also a conversation between generations and even an indirect conversation with me, a white man. I am allowed to watch the issues discussed by and between my black brothers and sisters. In this presentation Chris Johnson explains the workings of Question Bridge more thoroughly. In which presentation Johnson also makes clear that this concept can be used for any group of people (race, religion, nationality, sexuality, elderly, teenagers, etc.). It is a marvelous instrument to build understanding for the perspectives of others and at the same time showing our common humanity.

What Ekman does with letters, Question Bridge does with recorded videos of people's questions and answers -- in an indirect way making dialogue possible in order to cultivate mutual understanding between people and/or groups of people which builds stronger relationships and connections between them. Not to mention the possibility given by others to learn by their experiences.

The Parents Circle Families Forum (PCFF) is a joint Palestinian/Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the prolonged conflict. Their slogan is "It won't stop until we talk." This is their mission statement:

  • To create a framework of reconciliation between the 2 peoples that takes into account that any peace agreement must include an infrastructure for the process of reconciliation.
  • To work towards an end to violence and towards achieving an accepted political agreement.
  • To influence the public and the political decision makers to choose dialogue and the path of peace over violence and war in order to achieve a just settlement based on empathy and understanding.
  • To avoid the use of bereavement for further violence and retribution.

To give you an impression of the hard and great work this organization is doing, please watch this video of a youth program of dialogue between those who have lost a loved one(s) on both sides of the border.

By fostering dialogue we have a chance to build peace. That successful dialogue is possible is also proven by our shared human history. A peaceful environment is made by the people who live in that environment. We are the people. We're all in collective therapy or at least we should be. Let's get some professional help to construct meaningful dialogue in our joint struggle towards peace and mutual understanding.

The human right to express your innermost feelings is not much without the responsibility of others to listen to those feelings. As I speak I must listen; as I listen I must speak. And if I or someone else does not know how to do that, then Paul Ekman, Question Bridge, The Parents Circle Families Forum or others might be willing to help us to create (the space for) a constructive dialogue. For me, for you, for us as a society.

If you know of great ways of creating and cultivating constructive dialogue, please share your ideas and examples in the comment box below. The more possibilities we have to built peace via dialogue the better.