-The breaking moment was when I stopped seeing the online space as something that is replacing physical meetings, says Betka Wójcik.
She was a bit sceptical when the Coronavirus forced communication all over the world to go online, including the dialogue activities of Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD) – where she had been participating in training and meetings.
The sceptic attitude changed when she started focusing on the opportunities.
-I started to think about online dialogue as a different space and different way of communication, which has challenges but also opportunities. I started to think – how can I use all the advantages, says Wójcik.
A way to include more people
2020 was the year when dialogue escaped into the digital room, and the trend seems to continue in 2021. After the outbreak of the Coronavirus in March last year, the staff at NCPD immediately started to increase the activities in digital meeting rooms. At the end of the year, the center had gained much experience with the digital tools related to dialogue.
-In the digital way we can include participants from around the world, as far as they have an internet connection and a device. On the positive side is also that the conversations are slower and that the cost is low, says Christiane Seehausen, Senior Advisor at NCPD.
Seehausen has been organizing and facilitating a great number of dialogues online, including training courses for field workers in Syria and Irak, and for NGOs in Poland. She sees both possibilities and limitations with online dialogue.
-In the digital world we are connected, but in the same way disconnected and alone. It is difficult to really get in contact with people and we miss spontaneous responses like body language, all these small human reactions are not visible, Seehausen says.
She points at the fact that building trust is a key stone in dialogue, and trust is hard to create via a screen. This seems to be one of the serious drawbacks with dialogue over video.
Risky to comment on sensitive topics
The Afghanistan Week conference is held every other year in Oslo, with NCPD as organizer together with Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Chr. Michelsens Institute (CMI) and Norwegian Afghanistan Committee (NAC). This year everything was happening online.
-The week was turned into a public conversation that was shown live on YouTube, says Norunn Grande, Acting Director at NCPD.
Grande was leading a session where people working with dialogue at the grassroots in Afghanistan participated, via a mobile phone or laptop from their own community.
-The digital dialogue has the potential to bring out the grassroot voices and we can reach a larger audience. Because everything was happening online, Afghans living in different parts of Afghanistan could participate equally with people in front of the screen in Lillehammer and Oslo, says Grande.
The Afghanistan Week is available via Youtube, and such open access has advantages, but also challenges.
-This year it was more risky to comment on sensitive topics, says Grande.
In dialogue, it is important to create a safe space, where people feel confident to express their opinions. Creating a trustful and safe space is much more challenging in a digital room than in physical meetings, regardless of whether the conversations are posted online or not.
-People adjust their expressions to the feeling of safety. In a physical room we can have a public dialogue meeting with up to 100 participants, and we can more easily create the feeling of safety. Digital dialogue certainly has potential, but requires a very good structure, says Grande.
A democratic tool
-This tool is very democratic, it enables people from different corners of the world to meet with few preparations, says Alfredo Zamudio – currently on leave from his position as director at NCPD, to lead a dialogue process in Chile.
During the past year, he facilitated a dialogue process in Chile – which for the most part was done through digital meetings.
-Digital meeting space is an excellent tool, although it does not replace human interaction, such as showing affection, empathy and solidarity. When sharing the same physical room we can listen or be in silence – together. A digital meeting space does not fully manage to be a full replacement for a physical space, but is much better than not meeting at all, Zamudio says.
-It is also worth saying that it is easier, cheaper and allows great flexibility. With our experience in Chile during last year, we can certainly say that a dialogue process can be done digitally. We will be happy to share our experiences with colleagues who are interested, Zamudio concludes.
Important and meaningful
Christiane Seehausen points out that the digital meetings get better when the participants have met physically before.
-Digital meetings limit our work, but if the participants have met before and had the chance to build a foundation including trust, the dialogues will be better, more open and honest, she says.
Betka Wójcik experienced a great benefit from the online dialogues where she participated, facilitated by Christiane Seehausen.
-It was very important and meaningful for me to take part in the net based dialogues. I felt very inspired and encouraged, and I was very thankful for having this opportunity and possibility to talk about those important topics in those challenging times. It gave me a lot of hope and space and time to reflect on important issues, Wójcik says.
-For sure it is much more difficult to establish relationships and trust online, to really feel we are communicating with other „real” people. I think this requires much more time than with physical meetings. I experienced that it is possible also online, but we need to pay more attention to it and find methods to help people to feel it, Wójcik says.
One of the things she values most about dialogue is the inclusiveness, and how different people with different experiences can communicate equally.
-I experienced this much more difficult online, she says.
Needed in times of uncertainty
Also Agata Urbanik participated in the online dialogues in Poland.
-Virtual dialogues are more structured and less spontaneous. The order of speaking has to be followed carefully and it is difficult to go in new directions. People were fragmentized, their voices sometimes distorted. Nevertheless, we created a sense of intimacy and closeness, a true sharing space, Urbanik says.
Digital dialogue has the potential to include more people, but Urbanik points at the fact that going digital also can exclude.
-A risk with this kind of dialogue is digital exclusion. Which often intersects with other exclusion dimensions like age, material situation, health, social and ethnic background. We should think about providing necessary assistance for those who are not able to participate in online meetings, she says.
-It is possible to engage in meaningful contact online and we should practice it. Dialogue is needed in times of great uncertainty, like now. And it is fairly easy to organize, Urbanik says.
Text and photo: Kai Nygaard
Published: January 11th 2021
How to make a great net based dialogue:
-A brief introduction
-Participants should sign up beforehand and it should not be possible to join if you are late
-Short sessions – around two hours is often enough
-Clarity on expectations
-Conversations in smaller groups could be useful
-Have more than one person organizing. One should facilitate, one administer the digital tool and keep track of the talking list, and one to report (if need)
-Close each session with reflections from the facilitator based on what has been said during the session
-Using an experienced facilitator is recommended