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Facilitated dialogue is a conversation between two or more individuals or groups in which a trained multi-partial facilitator helps parties overcome communicative barriers, and engage in productive conversation regarding issues of mutual concern. Facilitated dialogue is not necessarily designed to produce or work toward a set of agreements, but can serve that purpose. There are numerous facilitated dialogue methods such as Circle Processes, Open Space Technology, Fish Bowls, and World Cafés that are used to help stimulate conversation.

Method Examples

Circle Processes

During a circle process participants sit in a circle, often without any barrier between them. (There may be objects in the center that have some shared meaning to serve as a focus for the group.) The conversation is controlled by a talking piece that is passed around the circle and grants the holder the sole right to speak. Participants can choose to speak while holding the talking piece or continue to pass it around the circle. The Circle Process is designed to create a safe space for participants.

There are a number of techniques to help make the circle safe and as comfortable as possible for all participants. In addition to the talking piece, guidelines are created and agreed upon by all participants. This is done before individuals come together for dialogue. These guidelines generally generate expectations for behavior. Circle processes also have a facilitator/keeper or two. This role is not intended to direct the group, but works to maintain the collective space. Circle processes may also have opening and closing ceremonies that remind people of the reason for coming together and give people time to catch their breath and reflect on their thoughts and feelings.

Circle processes are used in a broad range of circumstances from incidents involving a crime, to classroom and workplace settings. Circles are also used for a variety of purposes such as check-ins, fostering a better understanding of others, sharing knowledge, healing, support, community-building, conflict, reintegration, and celebration.

(Source: Beyond Intractability – More Constructive Approaches to Destructive Conflict)

Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology is an approach for hosting meetings, conferences, corporate-style retreats, and community summit events, focused on a specific and important purpose or task—but beginning without any formal agenda, beyond the overall purpose or theme.

The approach is most distinctive for its initial lack of an agenda, which sets the stage for the meeting's participants to create the agenda for themselves, in the first 30–90 minutes of the meeting or event. Typically, an open-space meeting will begin with short introductions by a facilitator. The facilitator explains the purpose and the process. Then the group creates the working agenda, as individuals post issues of interest to them on a bulletin board. Each individual who posts a topic takes responsibility for, assigning it a space and time to meet, and then later showing up at that space and time to start conversation and taking notes. These notes are usually compiled into a document that is distributed physically or electronically to all participants. People are generally free to come and go as they please, and can take part in a number of the smaller conversations. (Source: Open Space Worldscape)

Fish Bowl

Fishbowls is a process that involves a small group of people, usually less than 10, seated in circle, having a conversation in full view of a larger group of listeners. They can be used in a wide variety of settings, including workshops, conferences, organizational meetings and public assemblies. Fishbowls are useful for processing difficult topics, or sharing ideas or information from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes the discussion is a “closed conversation” among a specific group. However, at times, one or more chairs can be left open for members of the audience to step in and ask questions or make comments. Fishbowl processes usually have a facilitator.

World Café

World Café is a tool used as a means of enhancing collaborative thought. During a World Café process, assemblies of people divide into small groups and gather around a table to discuss a series of questions. There are a number of rounds and in each round a different question is asked. At the end of each round, each member of a given group moves to a different group with people they may not have had the opportunity to speak with before. Facilitators may encourage one person from each group to stay for the next round, welcome the next group, and share what was discussed in the previous round. As people move between groups, ideas are cross-pollinated and knowledge builds.

Learn More

  • The Little Book of Dialogue for Difficult Subjects: A Practical, Hands-On Guide
     by Lisa Schirch and David Campt
  • The Little Book of Circle Processes: A New/Old Approach to Peacemaking
     by Kay Pranis
  • The Little Book of "Cool Tools for Hot Topics": Group Tools to Facilitate Meetings When Things Are Hot
     by Ron Kraybill and Evelyn Wright

Voluntary and Confidential

Restorative practices are typically voluntary and the information shared during a process usually is held in confidence. There may be exceptions to confidentiality if the information is determined to be a future threat to self or others. Each participant usually has the right, at any point, to suspend the process and remove themselves from the process. The facilitator also often holds the right to suspend the process if they feel it is not safe or healthy for any of the stakeholders involved.

Contact the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices (OSARP) at (540) 568-6218, for more information.

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