4. The Role of the Dialogue Leader

The dialogue leader's role is an important one that requires especially good listening skills and knowledge of when not to talk. The dialogue leader must also help set and follow ground rules for participation in the dialogue. Establishing rules helps to create a safe environment for openness and sharing. The dialogue leader's basic responsibility is to the group as a whole, while also considering each person's individuality and level of comfort.

Leading a dialogue is an intensive activity requiring a high level of alertness and awareness. That is why dialogues are often conducted by two or more leaders. It may be particularly valuable to have co-leaders who are of a different race or ethnic background and gender. Co-leadership can help to balance the dialogue and "model" the type of collaboration you hope to encourage.

Discussion leaders are critical to making the dialogue work.

While the leader of a dialogue does not need to be an "expert" or even the most knowledgeable person in the group on the topic being discussed, he or she should be the best prepared for the discussion. It is up to the dialogue leader to keep the group moving forward, using phrases that enhance conversations and encourage discussion. This means understanding the goals of the dialogue, thinking ahead of time about the directions in which the discussion might go, and preparing questions to help the group tackle their subject. The dialogue leader guides the process to ensure that it stays on track and avoids obstacles that could derail it. While the discussion leader guides the dialogue, he or she is also impartial in it, that is, not favoring one person or point of view and not adding personal opinion. The dialogue leader lets the participants dictate the flow of the discussion. Solid preparation will enable you to give your full attention to how the participants are relating to each other and to what they are saying.

The dialogue leader plays several roles.

At the start of the session, remind everyone that the purpose is to have an open, honest, and cooperative dialogue, and that your role as leader is to remain neutral, keep the discussion focused, and follow the ground rules. Before the discussion begins, help the participants establish ground rules and ensure that all participants are willing to follow them. Ground rules must emphasize respect, listening, honesty, and the importance of sharing time equitably. Stress the importance of respecting different opinions and perspectives. You might post the following sample ground rules on a flip chart, or give one sample ground rule and ask the group to come up with more. You could then ask, 'Are there any questions about these ground rules? Can we all agree to them before we continue?

Suggested Basic Ground Rules for Dialogues

Some basic ground rules for dialogues might include the following:
  • We will respect confidentiality.
  • We will share time equitably to ensure the participation of all.
  • We will listen carefully and not interrupt.
  • We will keep an open mind and be open to learning.
  • We will not be disrespectful of the speaker even when we do not respect the views.

The following tips describe what a good dialogue leader should strive to do:

  • Set a relaxed and open tone. Welcome everyone and create a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Well-placed humor is usually appreciated.

  • Stay neutral. This may be the most important point to remember as the leader of a dialogue. You should not share your personal views or try to advance your agenda on the issue. You are there to serve the discussion, not to join it.

  • Stress the importance of confidentiality. Make sure participants understand that what they say during the dialogue session is to be kept completely confidential. Define for them what confidential means. For instance, it is not all right to speak outside of the dialogue about what someone else said or did. It is all right to share one's own personal insights about the issue of race and racism as a result of the process.

  • Encourage openness about language. Dialogue leaders should encourage participants to offer preferred terms ff a biased or offensive word or phrase should come up during the dialogue.

  • Provide bilingual translation, if necessary. Also, ensure that provided material is translated into the participant's first language, or recruit bilingual discussion leaders.

  • Keep track of who is contributing and who is not. Always use your "third eye." You are not only helping to keep the group focused on the content of the discussion, but you are monitoring how well the participants are communicating with each other-who has spoken, who has not, and whose points have not yet received a fair hearing. A dialogue leader must constantly weigh group needs against the requirements of individual members.

  • Follow and focus the conversation flow. A dialogue leader who listens carefully will select topics raised in the initial sharing. To help keep the group on the topic, it is helpful to occasionally restate the key question or insight under discussion. It is important to guide gently, yet persistently. You might ask, "How does your point relate to the topic?" or state, "That's an interesting point, but let's return to the central issue." Keep careful track of time.

  • Do not fear silence. It is all right if people are quiet for a while. When deciding when to intervene, err on the side of nonintervention. The group will work its way out of a difficult situation. Sometimes group members only need mom time to think through alternatives or to consider what has just been said.

  • Accept and summarize expressed opinions. "Accepting" shows respect for each participant in the group. It is important for the dialogue leader to make it clear that dialogue discussions involve no right or wrong responses. One way to show acceptance and respect is to briefly summarize what is heard and to convey the feeling with which it was shared. Reflecting both the content and the feeling lets the person know that she or he has been heard. For example, you might say: "It sounds like you felt hurt when you were slighted by someone of a different race." Once in a while, ask participants to sum up the most important points that have come out in the discussion. This gives the group a sense of accomplishment and a point of reference for more sharing.

  • Anticipate conflict and tend to the ground rules. When conflict arises, explain that disagreement over ideas is to be expected. Remind participants that conflict must stay on the issue. Do not allow it to become personal. Appeal to the group to help resolve the conflict and abide by the ground rules. You may have to stop and reference the ground rules several times throughout the discussion.

  • Close the dialogue. Give participants a chance to talk about the most important thing they gained from the discussion. You may ask them to share any new ideas or thoughts they've had as a result of the discussion. Ask them to think about what worked and what didn't. You may want to encourage the group to design a closing activity for use at each session. Provide some time for the group to evaluate the process in writing. A brief evaluation allows participants the chance to comment on the process and to give feedback to the dialogue leader. Remember to thank everyone for their participation.

    Here's how to handle some challenging situations.

    The best method for handling challenging situations is to anticipate them and be prepared. Each interracial dialogue is a unique experience, providing new opportunities for the discussion leader. Even those who have been facilitators for many years are often faced with new problems requiring on-the-spot creative action. There are no certain answers; sometimes groups just do not go well, and other times all participants seem engaged and satisfied. The following scenarios present some possible challenges to the dialogue leader and offer some guidelines for handling them.

    The Challenge

    The group is slow to respond to the process.

    How to Handle It: Check to determine whether your directions have been understood. You may need to restate the purpose of the process and how it should be carried out. You may also have people who resist participating because of "power" issues in the group. If so, invite them to participate to the degree they feel comfortable. Assure them that the purpose of the process is to share different insights, experiences, and personal reflections on the topic. However the members choose to participate is valuable. It is also important to make sure members are physically comfortable.

    The Challenge

    One or a few members dominate the dialogue.

    How to Handle It: The instructions you give to participants about respecting time limits are helpful. Invite participants to be conscious of each person having time to share his or her reflections, ideas, and insights. It may be helpful to invoke the ground rule "It is important to share time equitably" when a few individuals dominate the discussion. Another solution is to tell the group you want to hear from those who have not said much. Participants will look to you to restrain domineering members. Sometimes, this situation happens when those dominating the dialogue feel they have not been heard. Restating the essence of what they've expressed can show that you have understood their point of view.

    The Challenge

    The dialogue leader feels strongly about an issue and has trouble staying unbiased.

    How to Handle It: The dialogue leader needs to remain on task, which is to guide the process and to elicit and respect all members' thoughts. If leaders really respect the views of others, show interest and curiosity for other experiences and viewpoints, it will not be difficult to keep personal ideas from over-influencing the dialogue. This is not to say that the dialogue leader never shares with the members in the process. However, you must guard against moving from a discussion leader into a "teacher/lecturer" mode.

    The Challenge

    A participant walks out of a group following a heated conflict.

    How to Handle It: Sometimes the conversation may become heated. Other times, people may seem to be on the verge of fighting; and sometimes they may even walk out. The best way to deal with conflict is to confront it directly. Remind participants that they were told initially to expect conflict but that they agreed to respond to differences respectfully. The dialogue leader should always stop name-calling, personal attacks, and threats. This is one situation where you should readily appeal to the group for support. If they accepted the ground rules, they will support you.

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