Comparison of Dialogue Practices

Alexandria Costa​

May 2020


            Dialogue, in some form, exists in most societies but such a practice and its potential for conflict resolution and reconciliation are often overlooked.  Many times, reconciliation is left to individuals or communities to figure out on their own after justice has been done by the relevant government structures. Reconciliation can take many forms, and be highly symbolic and rooted in tradition, or it can be part of an intervention program that helps communities tackle the tough issue of healing. Either way, the existence and use of dialogue can be found in both instances and has been successful in mediating side effects of violence among opposed groups, different generations, or trauma incurred by the individual. In this paper, dialogue is explored in the context of two bordering countries, Rwanda and Uganda, who have both experienced cases of mass violence. Obviously, each country has a variety of different cultures, languages, traditions, and values that make their case unique – this paper seeks to evaluate use of dialogue in hopes of finding positive benefits that have come from the practice. Dialogue, in that name, is a Western conception but the notion of dialogue has been present in many cultures for years; understanding how dialogue is used for reconciliation in non-western contexts can be informative to peacebuilders and humanitarian organizations seeking to design intervention programs in post-conflict societies.

Concepts and Terms

            The use of dialogue is inherent to many cultures. It goes by different names, but all forms of dialogue can be found embedded within a process intended to reconcile or settle disputes.  Despite being a common feature in many societies, dialogue is rarely utilized by humanitarian programs or local governments as a post-conflict mitigation mechanism (King 2014). The purpose of dialogue is not to persuade others or debate but rather to commit to listening, sharing, and understanding which allows for a shift in relationships and ultimately creates a safe space for healing and reconciliation (Tint, Chirimwami, and Sarkis 2014). In addition to this, dialogue’s potential to shift perceptions and influence others enables dialogue participants to challenge traditional barriers to communication like status, language, and class (Carasco, Clair, and Kanyike 2001). Despite the benefits that could be elicited from dialogue practices, there are impediments that stop its use from being widespread. The most cited reason for the lack of widespread use had to do with a phenomena called a conspiracy of silence. The ‘conspiracy of silence’ occurs after a period of violence, and suppresses storytelling of that period in order to protect survivors and their family from traumatic memories, possible revenge seeking, and reignition of harmful ideologies (Wallace et al. 2014). As a possible means to overcome the conspiracy of silence and other barriers to dialogue, alternative methods have emerged.

            One method of stimulating dialogue among groups that has been successful in contexts where individuals are hesitant to share their perspectives is photovoice. Photovoice is a method where participants are given a camera  and asked to take and analyze photos that represent their world and point of view (Bananuka and John 2015). Participants can be given any number of prompts or assignments when taking photos which can be focused around certain topics that can be later encompassed in dialogue. The main goals of Photovoice are to empower people to document their lives, both positive and negative, through photography and to facilitate communication and dialogue in groups so important issues facing the community can be identified (Green and Kloos 2009). In a group setting, Photovoice can be used to support community-wide reflection and dialogue which can create consensus on challenges to the community as well as generate possible solutions (Bananuka and John 2015). The Photovoice method is a great tool that can be utilized in contexts with poor literacy, or language and cultural barriers that normally impede dialogue. This method is especially promising to help aid healing and dialogue for children who may not be able to articulate their perspectives. Overall, dialogue and storytelling around instances of suffering or violence in a group setting has been documented as a helpful approach for post-conflict societies and can work to break the conspiracy of silence and promote social connections and empowerment (Wallace et al. 2014).

Dialogic Practices in Uganda

Despite the legacy of violence in Northern Uganda from the war and tactics of the LRA, the Ugandan government has limited opportunities for dialogue and opted for an amnesty act, leaving the work of reconciliation to individual communities (Ibrahim 2009). While local means of reconciliation will help, the notion of truth telling or engaging in dialogue is complicated due to the environment of fear at a national level, and complex relations between victim and perpetrator at a local level (Anyeko et al. 2012). Studies in Uganda have shown that use of narrative and truth telling is an effective treatment for former child soldiers and can be implemented at a community level, highlighting the healing potential of dialogue for Ugandans (Ertl et al. 2011). Due to the nature of conflict waged by the LRA, both victims and perpetrators have experienced intense violence which has required reconciliation measures to be an intra-group phenomenon rather than an individual focused process (Finnegan 2010). For the Acholi people, their belief system is embedded with reconciliation mechanisms and places huge emphasis on truth-telling, acknowledgement, and accountability (Anyeko et al. 2012). Those who engage in the Acholi mechanism of forgiveness interpret the meaning of ‘to forgive’ as the willingness to engage in dialogue, which once completed can result in reconciliation via means of mato oput (Anyeko et al. 2012). While mato oput is the cornerstone of reconciliation in Acholi society, another clan in Northern Uganda places dialogue at the epicenter of conflict resolution.

The Karimojong clan in Northeastern Uganda holds truth in high esteem and uses dialogue to solve almost every interpersonal conflict between clan members. In this clan, truth in the Lederach sense (Lederach,1998) is embodied in the form of a ‘meeting’ which strives to bring openness and clear up issues between parties (Jabs 2010). The structure of this meeting involves community members sitting together with the parties to conflict in the meeting which is presided over by tribal elders; while each party shares their side of the story community members may add comments until the it is clear which party is at fault (Jabs 2010). Once fault is determined, arrangements can be made whether it is an apology or restitution and at this point reconciliation had been achieved between the parties which underlines the importance of the dialogue (Jabs 2010). In a clan where truth is lauded as the most important virtue, a dialogic process underpins the process of reconciliation.

Even though the aforementioned societies employ dialogue to overcome conflict, not all Ugandan societies are as receptive to this practice, which is why Photovoice has been used in cases where dialogue is not inherently present. By providing a camera to members of the community, they are empowered to instigate change in their community and reflect on their circumstances similar to the effects of dialogue (Bananuka and John 2015).  The process of the Photovoice method as it has been used in Uganda begins with assigning participants to take photos and when the group reconvenes they are asked to talk about the photos they took and point out their observations, which were then coded to reflect reoccurring themes (Bananuka and John 2015). The coding of photos also helped participants to choose titles for their work, which generated discussion, debate, clarification, and consensus among the group (Bananuka and John 2015). This use of Photovoice opens up dialogue on a number of levels: between participants, within the broader community, and a self-reflective dialogue with oneself. The dialogue also helped to flatten status and gender hierarchies which enabled more fruitful and personal discussion (Bananuka and John 2015). Through the process of taking photos, then sharing and discussing them with others allowed a process of group meaning-making to emerge, which is especially important in post-conflict societies attempting to reconcile (Green and Kloos 2009). Using Photovoice as a tool to generate dialogue has huge potential in achieving reconciliation as shown in the Uganda case, and could serve other communities recovering from periods of violence.

Dialogic Practices in Rwanda

            The scope of violence that occurred in Rwanda was national, and after the end of the 1994 genocide the national government worked towards means of reconciliation, most notably the 1999 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Rwandan TRC created a dialogic space for victims of violence to share their trauma and reclaim their agency through narrative, which aided in breaking the conspiracy of silence among survivors and perpetrators (Gobodo-Madikizela 2015). Aside from the government support for national reconciliation and creating a space for dialogue, Rwandan culture may have influenced the decision to promote these methods. The ‘art of conversation’ or ‘imvugo nziza’ is a practice that encourages dialogue led by elders and is embedded in Rwandan culture, however this cultural practice was disrupted by the genocide leading to a respite in this transfer of histories and stories (Wallace et al. 2014). It seems that the cultural linkage to the use of dialogue embedded in Rwandan societies facilitated later reconciliation measures despite the short period where a conspiracy of silence dominated.

            After the TRC, a number of local organizations began to organize programs focused around storytelling and dialogue to continue the sharing of stories from Tutsi and Hutu community members and rebuild at a local level. One such program, named Healing Life Wounds, brought together survivors and non-survivors and encouraged a dialogue between them in order to have each side shared their lived experiences of trauma (King 2014).The emphasis of this program was mutual healing and community rebuilding, so that both Hutu and Tutsi could live together in a peaceful coexistence and not fear retribution or carry shame and guilt about their past. Another program, called Stories for Hope, again worked to create dialogue but focused on pairing youth with elders in their community to encourage sharing of histories and foster mentorship, as well as overcome the intergenerational silences that encompassed communities after the genocide (Wallace et al. 2014). The main difference between these programs was how participants were paired, in Healing Life Wounds the focus was to have members of opposed groups speak with each other while Stories for Hope chose to focus on reigniting dialogue between generations and reawakened the art of conversation necessary for cultural transmission.

            Results from both programs were positive, and showed the power of dialogue to transform relationships with other community members and the important relationship to self. According to King, the four factors that helped the process of sharing and healing were, “a recognition of individual and communal suffering along with openness to change, a safe space for the sharing of personal stories, the qualities of the facilitator, and the use of supportive resources (King 2014, p.421). Through the process participants not only gained an understanding of their own narrative but how their story fit into the larger picture of their community, leaving participants with a sense of vulnerability and trust (King 2014). The process was especially helpful for perpetrators of violence in terms of psychological benefits, as the dialogic environment allowed them to feel less threatened, opening up the space for expression of acknowledgment and remorse, rather than hiding their complicity with shame and guilt (Gobodo-Madikizela 2015).  The Stories for Hope program noted positive behavioral changes among participants, such as having the capacity to engage with others, less restricted sharing of ideas and experiences, and a propensity for seeking out trustworthy people for advice or support (Wallace et al. 2014). These intervention programs clearly show the benefits of dialogue in post-conflict societies for both victim and perpetrator and show hope for renewed relations between former enemies.

Comparison of Cases

            When comparing the cases of Rwanda and Uganda and their use of dialogue in post-conflict societies, it reveals a number of factors that have affected the widespread adoption of the practice. One important factor to mention is that the political landscape and national government response after mass violence determines the intervention strategies more than any other factor. If a government discourages use of dialogue or creates an environment of fear which does not enable free sharing of thoughts on both sides, dialogue is unlikely to take place. This is exemplified by the fact that Uganda never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, even after years of war and mass violence, while the Rwandan government embraced the premise of the Commission after the 1994 genocide. Aside from this, it seems that Rwanda had a practice of dialogue embedded into their culture and the predisposition to dialogue made the TRC and subsequent intervention programming more viable. 

            Both cases were able to exhibit the positive aspects of dialogue and noted the benefits individuals elicited from engaging in dialogue to resolve conflict and heal. Where local practices used traditional means of reconciliation, dialogue or truth telling remained a key component in the process and emphasized the need for repaired relationships. Intervention programs that implemented dialogic practices noted similar benefits to participants such as renewed relations in the community, reduction in shame and guilt, and a likelihood to share experiences with others outside the program. In addition to the actual program, the sharing of recorded dialogues or photos in a space where the wider community can view them aced as an incentive for non-participants in the community to share their stories and engage others. The publication of materials to the wider community shows how the use of dialogue can be scaled up to include whole communities, and how benefits of intervention can be extended via the participants. One aspect that intervention programs focused on was removing the conspiracy of silence, which was damaging to the mental health of all affected individuals and stalled relations and cultural practices due to fear. The programs proved how dialogue can work to undermine this conspiracy, and not let it disrupt community functioning and intergenerational relationships.

            The inclusion of Photovoice methods in the case of Uganda shows how an intervention can be designed to encourage dialogue without stating that as its outright goal in uncertain contexts. Where local mechanism of reconciliation and healing may have fell short, the Photovoice method was able to create a safe space for dialogue to promote healing. Its use in post-conflict societies is important and shows promise as an intervention technique where barriers to traditional dialogue may be present. This method has the ability to include a more varied number of stakeholders to participate regardless of language, age, or other hierarchical divisions. Further research using the Photovoice method would be instructional as to how it can be incorporated across a variety of societies to instigate change or address challenges, regardless of the presence of violence.


            From the analysis, it can be gathered that the benefits of dialogue are paramount in helping communities to heal and reconcile after conflict of varying degrees. The programs mentioned in this case study show that dialogue can be used in a number of contexts and have been effective in helping individuals from different backgrounds. One of the most promising uses of dialogue for reconciliation was helping to reintegrate child soldiers into their former communities and allowing their trauma to be heard rather than silenced due to fear. That specific program could be beneficial in pioneering other intervention programs that incorporate dialogue into the traditional structure of a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs that have been lacking results. Dialogue practices were able to implement behavioral changes in some cases which shows promise for future program design and could be bolstered by further research.

            One of the biggest challenges of this paper was to find communities who used dialogue as a means of reconciliation. From the sources cited in this paper, it was mentioned that the topic of dialogue as it pertains to reconciliation is an understudied area that deserves more research in the future. The lack of research surrounding local mechanisms of reconciliation itself, let alone the use of dialogue, is unsettling as many local communities in post-conflict societies may experience outside intervention with programming that is not culturally relevant or sensitive. If more research were to be done into local practice and means of reconciliation, intervention programming in the future could be more culturally sensitive and relevant, which overall could lead to better results. For example, in the Stories for Hope Rwandan example, the researchers based their program around the cultural practice of ‘imvugo nziza’ and by recognizing this practice could design a program that would emulate this practice that was lost to the conspiracy of silence after the genocide. This example shows how knowledge of local practice can bolster credibility and ultimately affect the effectiveness of an intervention program. Therefore, the topic of dialogue as it can be found in traditional cultural practices for reconciliation deserves greater research in the future.

            Another fascinating method that came into play where the context did not normally have a space for dialogue as a means of reconciliation or healing was Photovoice. As the method of Photovoice is relatively new, it is understandable that it is not widely used. However, the generative capacity of Photovoice to promote dialogue has huge potential in post-conflict areas in need of healing and reconciliation. Most of the uses of Photovoice in the past have been used as a means for individuals to identify issues in their community with an end goal of instigating policy change or government reform, but if the focus could shift from policy change to promotion of intergroup healing, the potential for this method in reconciliation is hopeful. As mentioned previously, Photovoice is a method that can open up dialogue at multiple levels, rather than just directly benefitting participants in a dialogue session with a facilitator. The photos that were taken and dialogue recordings that came from the Photovoice sessions, once made public, were able to extend benefits to the wider community. Overall, the psychological and community benefits derived from dialogue practices in their many forms highlight the importance of truth, mercy, vulnerability and sometimes justice that are foundational in the process of reconciliation.

Works Cited:

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Bananuka, Twine, and Vaughn M. John. 2015. “Picturing Community Development Work in Uganda: Fostering Dialogue through Photovoice.” Community Development Journal 50 (2): 196–212.

Carasco, Joseph, Nancy Clair, and Lawrence Kanyike. 2001. “Enhancing Dialogue among Researchers, Policy Makers, and Community Members in Uganda: Complexities, Possibilities, and Persistent Questions.” Comparative Education Review 45 (2): 257.

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Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. 2015. “Psychological Repair: The Intersubjective Dialogue of Remorse and Forgiveness in the Aftermath of Gross Human Rights Violations.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 63 (6): 1085–1123.

Green, Eric, and Bret Kloos. 2009. “Facilitating Youth Participation in a Context of Forced Migration: A Photovoice Project in Northern Uganda.” Journal of Refugee Studies 22 (October): 460–82.

Ibrahim, Maggie. 2009. “Rebel Voices and Radio Actors: In Pursuit of Dialogue and Debate in Northern Uganda.” Development in Practice 19 (4/5): 610–20.

Jabs, Lorelle Beth. 2010. “‘You Can’t Kill a Louse with One Finger’: A Case Study of Interpersonal Conflict in Karamoja, Uganda.” Peace & Change 35 (3): 483–501.

King, Régine Uwibereyeho. 2014. “Key Factors That Facilitate Intergroup Dialogue and Psychosocial Healing in Rwanda: A Qualitative Study.” Intervention 12 (3): 416–29.

Lederach, John Paul.1998.  "Reconciliation: The Building of Relationship", Chapter 3 in Building Peace." United States Institute of Peace. 

Tint, Barbara, Vincent Chirimwami, and Caroline Sarkis. 2014. “Diasporas in Dialogue: Lessons from Reconciliation Efforts in African Refugee Communities.” Conflict Resolution Quarterly 32 (2): 177–202.

Wallace, David A., Patricia Pasick, Zoe Berman, and Ella Weber. 2014. “Stories for Hope-Rwanda: A Psychological-Archival Collaboration to Promote Healing and Cultural Continuity through Intergenerational Dialogue.” Archival Science; Dordrecht. 2014.