The summer finds us, forty young people from over a dozen countries, in Lillehammer, to talk about dialogue – or to do it, somehow. At the very least, we are here to listen to each other, with most of us coming from places where conflicts have been or still are an uncomfortably real thing, says Josh Nadeau, who attended this year’s Nansen Dialogue Summer School.
“I’m against zero-tolerance. But I think I have zero-tolerance in me somewhere.”
“I don’t think the people in the east of the country know how hard it is for people in the west. And vice versa.”
“Eight years ago she was a paraplegic and now look at her dance.”
When we’re posed questions like “can we find a way to listen to each other?” our answers come out of lived experiences such as exhaustion over an ongoing, and still not implemented, peace process in Colombia or unresolved baggage from the American annexation of Hawaii. We are Ukrainians divided over what our conflict means, Russians tired of our government or kids from the Balkans rolling our eyes at being perceived as constantly in a fight. “We’re really not,” these kids say, nearly holding hands as we others ask them questions.
And it’s the questions we spend the most time on. For good reasons, Steinar Bryn, our facilitator, often describes dialogue as a way of asking the right questions. Are we actively listening, looking for the needs underneath the claims people are putting forward? Are we looking for the assumptions they bring to the conversation? Are we looking for our own? How can we frame the conversation in a way that helps us talk about what we really want to talk about? Do we even know, at the end of the day, what we’re trying to communicate?
These are questions I might ask myself when talking to people with different backgrounds, and as a person living on a continent quite far removed from my hometown, this happens pretty often. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to one day see these questions asked on the screen when, in a slightly stuffy Saint Petersburg basement, I watched the movie Reunion. It tells the story of people from Kosovo, both Albanians and Serbs, who were brought together as a group by the NCPD right before the NATO bombings in 1999. Ten years later they are reunited for one more conversation to see how they and everything else has changed, how difficult it was and still is to just talk about things and how water under the bridge could never really be water under the bridge. It shows that while they are still friends, they are still very, very angry. At the same time, the movie shows Steinar, sitting off in a corner, trying to create space where people could genuinely encounter each other. However, what does creating that space mean?
For me, that space means a whole lot. Learning how to facilitate it, to deepen it, is pretty much the reason I came here. It’s become a much more important question for me over the past few years in which the world’s been changing a lot and fast. I can remember listening to Ukrainian friends talking about family members displaced from the conflict zone, or hearing Russians I’d just met speaking about fears of NATO and American aggression. Different ethnic groups in Bosnia or Georgia asking what it means to live together and if it can be done at all. Being challenged in different pockets of the continent, in cars, in deadbeat cafés, in the front cabin of a truck by being asked: why did they attack our land? Why are they coming closer to our borders? Why did they bomb that bridge? Why do they hate us?
And then, back home, Trump’s election entrenching an otherwise civil population into a culture war. Add Brexit and the initial Colombian peace referendum. And you (actually, me) might wonder how we can help people talk to each other again. To ask ourselves what it means to try to create a space where people can step back from escalation and see each other as human beings with needs. And to ask how people sometimes do not understand that desire; mixing up an inclination to speak to the other side with a kind of betrayal. Seeing you sometimes have to hide your own background and needs to make a conversation work. And seeing it all up there in Reunion, with a history of bombs and massacres and displacement, with people still trying to make dialogue work. If it works at all.
“I’m not trying to be self-righteous – I just want to understand.”
“Can I respectfully disagree?”
“I’m sorry she never answered your question. You asked point blank. Twice.”
After watching the movie I wanted to come to Lillehammer to learn how to do this better, how to find the right conditions to help people talk and talk deeply. But even here there’s no magic bullet, no instant formula. We’re still working with incomplete, partial information – sometimes parallel worlds of it. Most of us are either too young to remember certain wars, or we’ve got conflicts fresh enough to make our heads spin. We’re a thin slice of our native demographics and don’t represent the real diversity of our respective countries. So what are we able to do?
The importance of listening
I look at the week’s program and find workshops near the end that look amazing: how to organize sessions, how to be a practitioner, where do we go from here. This is the kind of stuff I’m looking for: practical skills for people to use. How to link up what you’re doing now to the wealth of experience already out there. In the meantime, we form groups based on the regions we are from and decide what questions to ask each other and how to answer them. The questions take time and then even more time. Eventually we realize there isn’t going to be room for anything else. I get a bit disappointed but, then again, it just shows that this is a lesson that must be learned again and again: questions need to have top priority since listening has top priority as well. No structure or program or method can get around that – if it’s not at the top of our priority list, everything else slides off into irrelevance.
And listening is hard – it’s like asking you to put away your prejudices and your immediate reactions so you can just sit there and receive someone else. It strips you, in a way, of your humanity, all so you can accept the other person’s complexities better. I still don’t know how I feel about this, other than that it’s true. It’s just hard – sometimes impossible. Really, really impossible. But only when you try approaching that place, try getting closer to a receptivity bordering on radical empathy, are you able to make space for someone else to come out of hiding and admit to the messy bits in their own opinions and feelings. Maybe in some way you’ll see bits of you in there.
“There are people here from all parts of Ukraine, but I’m just here to listen. I don’t want to argue with anyone,” says Evgeny, one of the other participants. He’s from Donbass, Ukraine’s conflict zone, and had family members take up arms on opposite sides of the fight. “We’re talking about techniques to use, asking questions and listening. I want to use these techniques, but in my family first. That’s where things start. We talked about how to speak about what made us, and that was a difficult question to answer. What made me. I know that my father and brother made each other, and I think that they both feel bad but still won’t communicate. They don’t know how. Being able to tell what made you is powerful, and I think that if I could mediate between them maybe they would talk again.”
And that’s the kind of thing we hope for by being here, by making ourselves listen, by letting everything else slide off the agenda, even the things we came here for in the first place. Here, they tell us about presence, about feeling situations out, taking everything as it is rather than how we think it should be. We get to see how nothing here is standardized which is frustrating and familiar and somehow the only way.
I came to Lillehammer to be trained, but in the end, I’m reminded of how necessary it is just to sit with a person or group at a particular place in their journey. I’m reminded of how it’s an honour to see the struggle, to see the conflicting parts inside ourselves and our communities and to help create a space safe enough that we can invite others to be more human. I learned to see how it’s important that we lose a bit of ourselves but, somehow, find something else just as strange and familiar. How it gets exhausting, but we’re not alone. Not yet. And maybe, in a way – maybe the only way that matters – we’re all in the same boat anyhow. Being present to you sometimes turns into being present to me.
“I just want to hug all of you.”
“I don’t want to talk anymore.”
“This is my first time abroad and I never thought I would meet people like you.”
Josh Nadeau was born in Canada but has been living in East Europe and the former Soviet Union for the majority of the past six years. In his youth he participated in various initiatives engaged with issues like sex trafficking, leadership development, poverty, youth mentoring and religious dialogue. Having divided his time between Ukraine and Russia during the onset of the Crimean crisis, he was prompted to pay deeper attention to issues of cultural conflict and their consequences. He is a freelance writer and his work commonly engages with North American culture war, political appropriation of the memory of WWII/fascism and the mechanics of dialogue.
The Nansen Dialogue Summer School is a collaboration between the University of Oslo Summer School and the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue. The seminar offered insights into of how dialogue can be used in everyday life and in conflict situations. The 40 participants of 2018 came from Russia, Ukraine, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Colombia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Montenegro, USA and Norway.