Michael Donnelly expands on the thinking behind Dialogue Day at this year’s Imagine! festival.

Is it time for the public to engage in dialogue?

“I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe that people are their talk.” Roddy Doyle

We are what we talk. Going by what we read today in social media in Northern Ireland and everywhere else – all that commentary by ordinary people and celebrities: we are fairly outraged people and willing to let loose on each other. This is related to distance and anonymity and clearly not the case when we meet face to face.

For my day job I facilitate meetings. It is a niche career that means working in village halls, in posh hotels, in anonymous conference centres, in tents, in school gym halls – anywhere in the world and anywhere there is a space for people to meet. The reasons why people meet together are as diverse as the locations. Public policy consultation, team building, peace strategies, village plans – they all bring their constituency with them. You get to see all of human dynamics in a group.

By far my favourite experience of working with any group is the moment where they discover there is no fixed agenda, where they are free to just say what needs to be said and get it all out there and they find out they have a whole lot in common with people they thought were opposing them, where all of a sudden people are listening, sharing, attentive to the others around them, and clearly engaged. They are invited to dialogue. Without fail at this moment the buzz in the room increases, people are animated and they own the conversation; everyone an expert in their own stuff. It is very often intensively productive.

Last year during a workshop I organised at Fitzroy Church on the question of how sectarianism affects everyday life in Northern Ireland we got to learn of a very simple but powerful process that takes place every year in the Netherlands. It is called Day of Dialogue.

In the aftermath of 9/11 and following the murder of a prominent Dutch politician a group of Dutch Civil Society leaders created an active response to the fragmenting society they were living in. They offered people in Amsterdam and Rotterdam the chance to engage in an exercise of simple conversation for two hours. This grew into a movement and now each year tens of thousands of Dutch people right across the country engage in a “week of dialogue” in 60 different towns and cities; in cafes, schools, restaurants and any number of venues.

The Dutch approach is to offer the opportunity to anyone to be able to come along and engage in a real dialogue, for a short time – Participants in a dialogue are expected – no matter how hesitant and difficult – to talk about themselves and their experiences in relation to the subject, as well as showing genuine interest in the story of the others. It does not concern a battle with arguments or proving one’s right but a personal meeting and exchange. It discovers shared humanity.

Being inspired by the model in the Netherlands last year I invited Roos Nabben, one of the founders to come to Belfast to describe the process. As a result of that experience I have teamed up with Denis Stewart (famed for his Civic Conversations) and together we have created this year’s Day of Dialogue. Our ambition is to lift dialogue out of the domain of the expert and help more and more people to experience it – as facilitators, as hosts, and as participants.

This year as part of the Imagine Festival you are invited to come find out what it’s like to be in a dialogue. For two short hours in ten different locations across the city there will be a facilitator to guide a process of exploration on the topic Surviving or Thriving in Turbulent Times. They all start at 10.00am on 21st March.

You can find all the details here – where you can choose which venue you would like to participate in.

Michael Donnelly is a Partner in a Dutch based cooperative called Perspectivity. They work throughout the world to introduce creative ways to engage people in solving complex issues. Denis Stewart is a member of the Edinburgh-based International Future’s Forum and convenor of Civic Conversations. He is also Chair of Voluntary Arts Ireland.

We’ll be in touch.