Written by  Louise Southwell and Julie Wetterslev

RIKO has invited Steinar Bryn from the Nansen Dialogue Network to talk about his experience as a dialogue worker. And he is more than happy to share his experience with us. ‘It is essential for successful dialogue work that you learn how to apply your experience to your work’, he says. ‘It’s the same with experiences from your everyday life; if I host a party and I put on music that makes people dance, I’ll remember it the next time I host a party’.

Bryn is the founder of the Nansen Dialogue Network at the Nansen Institute in Lillehammer, Norway. He has more than 20 years of experience with dialogue as a hands-on tool in peaceful conflict resolution. He has primarily worked with conflicts in the Balkan countries and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he has continuously focused on bringing the conflicting parties together in order to establish a dialogue.


Bryn considers dialogue work to be a neglected tool in international conflict resolution, as it is often rejected as a ‘weak’ or ‘soft’ approach. But Bryn argues that dialogue indeed plays an essential role when trying to get conflicting parties to change their perceptions of each other. Changing the perceptions of one’s ‘enemy’ and their motives is essential if a conflict is to be solved, Bryn says. When people, who consider each other enemies, meet each other and spend time together, they get the chance to get a deeper understanding of each other as humans. Making ‘enemies’ meet and talk is the main foundation in Bryn’s dialogue work.

Bryn explains how Serbs and Albanians from Kosovo have established an understanding of each other after spending several days together at the Dialogue Centre in Lillehammer: ‘’Oh, you also have children’, they say after the first day. ‘Oh, you like playing football too’, after the next. And ‘Oh, you also had terrible experiences during the war, and you’re just a human like me’, they say when the week has passed.


On the difference between dialogue and debate.


‘A dialogue is not the same as a debate. When people debate they actively try to defend their argument and position against their opponents’, Bryn explains. Dialogue, on the other hand, is a process in which the conflicting parties gain a better understanding of each other’s experiences and stories and thereby the conflict itself.

Politics are often more influenced by debate than dialogue. But does that mean that one cannot apply dialogue to politics? No, Bryn says; ‘people who support dialogue work do not hold neutral positions in life or in their political orientation. However, it is important as a dialogue worker to remain neutral when conducting dialogue work. You have to recognise that both sides of the conflict have equal access to what they understand as the ‘truth’. And you have to put in an equal amount of interest in understanding all versions of the conflict’. This does not mean that debates in politics are worthless. Rather, it is highly useful to have a dialogue before a debate in order to capture and acknowledge all the nuances of a conflict.

Dialogue is what brings about change, Bryn argues. ‘When participants in a dialogue meeting debate, they are stuck in their original positions and their perceptions remain unchanged. Maybe they debate 80% of the time, trying desperately to defend their version of the conflict. But when they eventually stop debating and enter into a dialogue, perceptions and understandings of the conflict start changing’.

Steinar Bryn on dialogue in international conflict resolution

Picture from RIKO’s seminar with Steinar Bryn regarding dialogue in international conflict resolution.



We can all potentially become dialogue workers as a dialogue worker ‘s primary tool is oneself and one’s intuition, when trying to establish an understanding of the different nuances in a conflict.

The main point of a dialogue is to make the different perceptions of a conflict visible among the conflicting parties. If the conflicting parties do not understand or see each other’s perspectives, the hope of resolution is nonexistent. ‘It is important to create a space where the different stories and perceptions can be voiced. Not all stories are equally important, but they all play a part in understanding the whole story. It is important to get all nuances and stories on the table in order for the dialogue to move forward’.

It is essential for the process of a dialogue that the dialogue worker does not position him- or herself as a judge. One’s neutrality is one’s authority. It is important to have a humble approach to the conflict in order to be a good dialogue worker. ‘A dialogue worker must remain humble towards perceptions of right and wrong, good and bad, sacred and profane’, Bryn says.


An important task for the dialogue worker is to constantly participate in strengthening a ‘culture of dialogue’. A culture of dialogue supports the idea of a society where it is acceptable to express unfinished thoughts and arguments; where the art of asking good questions is appreciated; where it is encouraged to explore different opinions and assumptions about the world; and where it is acceptable to commit and admit to mistakes.

The usefulness of dialogue as a tool in conflict resolution presupposes the acknowledgement of integration as better than segregation. Segregation of people, as we see it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, strengthens the conflicting perceptions of the world and thus the conflict itself. ‘The conflicting parties have oppositional perceptions of the conflict because they are segregated. And because they are segregated they have oppositional assumptions of what ‘the other side’ is fighting for – it is a self-perpetuating process’ Bryn says. In other words, the lack of dialogue and the active segregation contribute to keeping the conflict alive.


According to Bryn’s experience with dialogue meetings, a meeting should last for at least three days and have about 16 participants in order to be effective. The participants must have enough time to reflect upon and answer essential questions such as: How is the conflict affecting you? How is it affecting your family? Your work possibilities? Living standards? Dreams about the future? The other participants listen, reflect and often find resemblances.

Bryn says that conflicting parties often are convinced that ‘the other side’ is getting special treatment form the dialogue workers. This means that most meetings begin with both sides trying to portray themselves as the victims in order to gain sympathy from the dialogue workers. The dialogue worker must be prepared for this ‘battle’ and let it unfold in order for people to get rid of their initial frustrations.

But at some point, the focus on victimisation must be stopped in order for the dialogue to begin. This can be achieved by asking the participants to evaluate the communication and co-operate across ethnic, religious or political boundaries in their local communities. Or ask the participants to identify the obstacles that prevent integration and co-operation (internally, externally, individually, structurally). Do the participants support and wish for stronger synergy and co-operation? How can they participate in overcoming the obstacles at home?

It is a common mistake that there is paid little or no attention to the continued dialogue process when the participants return home. The Nansen Dialogue Network therefore puts a lot of effort into creating a stabile setting for the ongoing dialogue process in the participants’ local communities. The goal, of course, is to encourage the participants to tell people about their positive experiences with each other, thus strengthening the local dialogue and conflict resolution.

From the Nansen Dialogue Network’s website:
The idea of creating Nansen Dialogue started in Norway in 1994, when the city of Lillehammer, host of the Winter Olympics, connected with a former Olympic City, Sarajevo, at that time a city under siege. The wars in the Western Balkans in the 1990s left many societies divided and segregated, with little hope for a better future. With the aim of bringing hope through dialogue and reconciliation several Nansen Dialogue Centres were established in Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia.

These centres are the core of the Nansen Dialogue Network, a network which shares its know-how and experience with local, national and international actors and partners to jointly support dialogue and peacebuilding processes around the world. The Nansen Dialogue Network gathers politicians, journalists, teachers, parents, and pupils for dialogue about their own conflict, exploring potential solutions and opening possibilities for institutional change, where the situation is no longer seen through ethnic or mono-cultural lenses, but with a view to joint understanding that benefit all.

RIKO organised the seminar with Steinar Bryn in order to learn from his experiences with dialogue work. The RIKO members are interested in working with ‘Track 2 diplomacy’ (such as dialogue) in their future work and in their effort to influence the Danish foreign policy. Track 2 diplomacy operate under the state level, meaning that thinks tanks and other organisations can facilitate conflict resolution and reconciliation processes.

Translated by Louise Southwell