Qualities of Interfaith Dialogue Facilitators

Mohammed Abu-Nimer

Professor of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the School of International Service, American University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: What kind of qualities do you think a person doing this kind of work, as you do inter-faith dialogues and other forms of conflict resolution, what kind of qualities do you think that person should have?

A: as a person or as a professional?

Q: Both.

A: It is hard to really make the distinction between them. I would say that there are necessary attributes or features for international peace builders to be effective in war. You have to be able to gain the trust of the participants and establish a relationship within that allows them to speak safely in a safe environment that allows them to open up and speak. Referring to your pervious question, change in perception takes place when people feel safe and safety is one of the conditions that you have to work very hard to establish in the group. If you cannot be trusted as an international trainer then you can't do that.

The second quality is that you need patience. That aspect of patience is very challenging and very difficult. You need patience because it is very intense work and if you do a lot of work and if you do a lot of this type of dialogue groups you tend to see similar things happening. You should have the energy and capacity to listening to people's pain, people's misperceptions, and even listen to people's ignorance. You sit there and you are capable of seeing racist things that have a good intention sometimes. The patience is to see these things in front of you, yet to contain your feelings and then to intervene in an effective and constructive way to establish a safe space for that group to help move them to one area of comfort to an area of discomfort, this is where I think the learning usually takes place. When people are confronted by negative images of the other, by their stereotypes, and prejudice, they learn through these interactions, as well as through positive interactions. Patience in the sense of facing those biases that you have, and having the energy to face them. Patience in terms of dealing with prejudice, with things will bother you.

The third quality I would say is that you need to constantly reflect on your own biases. That is really an aspect that I have found very challenging because each one of us go around with our own values and assumption. Ask yourself, "How are my biases affecting my professional intervention", is another aspect.

Another attribute that is required is that in the US we call it the "walk your talk" concept. It is the fact if you call for social change or for political change then you have to make part of your life assigned to do that, not as part of your work only, but to be able to engage in civil rights work, protests and political activism, community volunteer workshops, community service. To walk your talk is very important. In most of our work people don't only learn from the cognitive and the nice charts, models, and triangles and circles that we draw on the flip charts. Most of the learning also comes from role modeling. When they ask you what do you do in order to make change happen outside of your profession, walking your talk is another important thing.

I have talked about patience and flexibility; you can't go in with structure and a rigid mind set. You can't go in with the mentality of working an agenda from 9-5, minute by minute. You are mechanically treating those perceptions. To change those perceptions that people have of each other you have to be flexible enough to adjust to change your techniques and your intervention based on the nature of the people that sit with you. Obviously there is this principle that you need to understand what you are doing. You need to have a comprehension and an understanding of the processes and dynamics of the conflict and the group work. I think those are necessary substance skills and information that you need to know. I am not sure how much knowledge of theory of conflict resolution or international relations that you need, but you certainly need to understand the group dynamic as well as what happened to the people in the conflict situation.