What does it take to have more effective international dialogue? Incorporate diverse and marginalized voices?  Communication to be effective needs to be two way [See “Words that Communicate“].  Even in one language and homogeneous cultures we are not always successful in having dialogue in which everyone listens and makes an effort to understand, as much as they talk.  In different languages and cultures dialogue becomes an even harder challenge.  With all of our increase in technology and tools  there is sometimes an assumption that we are getting better at communicating, but the existence of tools does not necessarily bring an increase in good communication.  We need to put these tools to effective use, while recognizing that communication and dialogue are about human relationships, not technological tools.

There are different audiences with which we may want to engage in dialogue and each may have different goals.   It is important to know your audience and clarify the goals to identify appropriate strategies and assess effectiveness.  Being conscious about how you will be engaging your group is an important first step.  Here are some possible audiences, some challenges and some ideas for how you might address them:

(1)  Informal situations such as blogs or communities of practice tend to be self-selective – the participants have often chosen to join the community (at least initially) so encouraging some initial participation may not be as much of a challenge as in groups that have not volunteered to come together.  Creating a safe, supportive space, with participation being met with encouragement will help to encourage dialogue.  For example if an online discussion is primarily in English and some non-native English speakers make attempts to participate, these efforts should be acknowledged and supported.

(2)  More formal groups:  When groups are brought together within an organization or among diverse stakeholders it is especially important to clarify the goals of the discussion.  Are you increasing dialogue to solicit feedback on an existing proposal or to create a new project from the beginning?  Clarifying the expectations for the group can help to minimize miscommunication and potential dissatisfaction.  If language is an issue you can increase the potential for all to follow the discussion by taking small steps such as encouraging all speakers to minimize the use of acronyms or expressions and speak slowly and clearly, having formal translation, or allowing “whisper translations” by one bilingual participant more comfortable with the primary language of the meeting to another non-native speaking participant who may be less fluent. Those facilitating the meeting can repeat and/or paraphrase on a regular basis throughout the session.

(3)  Groups with unequal relationships (i.e. donors and beneficiaries, trainers and trainees, etc…) are particularly challenging situations in which to create true dialogue. Special efforts need to be made to create safe, supportive spaces that encourage frank discussion.  This is never easy but there are increasingly more tools and formats available to help meeting planners and facilitators.  Some of these include:

(a) The Listening Project’s Dayna Brown  talks about her project and about some ways of making field staff and beneficiaries interactions more effective:

(b) Listen First and the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit are examples of practical tools for participatory dialogue that have been shared online.

(c) Shared Learning models such as ShareFairs  – Several Rome-based agencies international agencies (Bioversity International, CGIAR-ICT-KM programme, FAO, IFAD and WFP)  jointly co-organized their first Knowledge “Share Fair” (2009) in order to enable their staff to showcase, recreate and invent ways to share knowledge and improve access to it. This need came out from the realization that we all have something to share and we all have something to learn from each other.  They have continued to organize these participatory events at regional levels and on specific themes.

How to know that you are making progress toward effective international dialogue and engagement? It is important not to stop with the meeting or event itself but to make sure to continue to monitor, evaluate and improve on your efforts. Surveys or focus groups asking challenging questions or obtaining feedback from trusted ‘cultural interpreters’ or local representatives are some ways you might do this.

Cross posted as a guest post on Good Intentions are Not Enough blog