Topic 1 Dialogue

The purpose of this unit is to explore the conditions that allow the educational work of ‘unpacking’ extremism to happen, and more importantly, support young people and practitioners in finding their voice and listening to others. At the heart of all of these elements is the ‘art of listening’. To engage in a real dialogue, we must listen to others without just trying to react or preempt them. This involves a certain kind of listening that is responsive, open and reflective. We must also listen to ourselves and support our own inner dialogue (a strange idea perhaps!) and become more aware of our own assumptions and commitments. Listening is a practice and an art, and it has many forms.

Sometimes listening and dialogue aren’t easy. It can be hard to know what to do and how to respond when engaging with hate speech, hurtful comments, and hateful even violent behaviour. Part of the work in this module involves working with young people, colleagues and communities to create the conditions to be able to deal with these issues, including conflict. As practitioners we also bring ‘baggage’ which we need to unpack by to engage in self-reflection to understand our own assumptions and commit to developing awareness of our reactions (and perhaps defensiveness) when an experience of racism occurs. Do we listen? Do we shut it down? Explain away? Give advice? Do we feel listened to at those moments? What would we need to happen to feel listened to? Listening also involves staying with discomfort. Sometimes just listening allows for transformation to happen on its own terms, and sometimes it can make clear what change needs to happen at an organisational and structural level.

This unit will outline activities and exercises to support self-reflection, to support practitioners to listen to themselves and to others, and to help young people to do the same. The key themes are dialogue, listening, reflecting, developing awareness, and engaging in difficult conversations.

No assumptions, except for best intentions: People should not assume other people’s experiences or anything else. The only assumption people should make is that when other participants speak, they are speaking with the best intentions and do not mean to offend anyone.

Correct gently, but do correct: If participants say something that is incorrect or offensive, politely address what was said. Letting comments slip by only makes the space less safe and increases the difficulty of building successful partnerships.

Don’t Yuck my Yum: When group members share their likes and dislikes, respect their personal opinions and preferences.

Use “I” Statements: Everyone should speak from his/her/hir/their own experiences.

Avoid making generalisations: Don’t make blanket statements about any groups of people. If you’re not sure that something you want to say is factually correct, phrase it as a question. Having a set of agreements will help ensure that your meetings are respectful and provide a safe place for everyone.

One mic, one voice: Only one person should speak at a time.

Make space, take space: Participants should be aware of how much they are speaking. If they feel they are speaking a lot, they should let others speak, and if they find themselves not talking, they should try to contribute some comments, ideas or suggestions.

Respect confidentiality : Assume that stories and comments shared in discussions should remain private. Ask for consent before you share someone’s story or comment.

Lean into discomfort: Meetings and topics can sometimes be challenging. Be willing to experience some discomfort in discussions, and learn from it

Personalise your agreed ‘group contract’: Have one of the first meetings of the year be focused on creating a list like this or adding to this list to set your group’s agreement. Revisit your agreements as reminders for the space you are creating and in case any agreements need to be updated.

Adapted from GLSEN

In this section, we will explore listening and dialogue. Sharing, learning how to listen, and learning how to engage in dialogue have been key themes in thinking about educational response to extremism.

This topic is designed as an invitation to reflect on the nature and role of dialogue in your practice. It explores how to create spaces that avoid slipping into and resist the often harmful effects of silencing.

Before we start, we invite you to engage in a short Padlet activity. Using the QR code, post your thoughts on the following “Good Dialogue happens when …”


Take a moment to reflect on what others have written. Note any new insights and feel free to “like” those views that resonate with you. Keep these thoughts in mind as we move through this section.

This statue honours the heroines of South Africa’s struggle and is dedicated to all women who have been at the forefront of social and political change. The work depicts a woman protester with a baby strapped to her back. She holds a protest placard in one hand and a candle in the other to light her way.

Part of our reflections through this unit involving keeping in mind the role of dialogue in democracy, and the idea that democracy always involves dialogue, including engaging with challenging and sometimes even hateful positions. It has been said that productive dialogic engagement is the critical means by which individuals build inter-subjective capacities and democratic cultures (Pruitt and Thomas 2007).

Dialogue does not assume that people are the same, speak the same way, or are interested in the same issues. It only assumes that people are committed to a process of communication directed toward interpersonal understanding and that they hold, or are willing to develop, some degree of concern for, interest in, and respect toward one another (Burbules, 1993: 25). But of course there are those who do not want this. There are those who are silenced and those who wish to silence others. As educators, our own silence about these issues is already a position.

Sources: Pruitt, B. and Thomas, P. (2007) Democratic Dialogue: A Handbook for Practitioners. UNDP.

Source: Johannesburg City Hall, Bayers Naude Square, 2015 

Sculptor: Lawrence Lemaoana

The practitioners and policy makers who took part in our workshops were committed to creating cultures that were open, invitational and tolerant. They says the problem cultures which are more likely to silence, intolerant, or that closed down discussion. They saw the careful creation of such invitational cultures, including at times surfacing polarised viewpoints, as real and important pedagogic opportunities for growth and community building.

Here we might recall Paulo Freire’s persistent refusal to speak for others and his insistence on dialogic engagement and encouraging the voices of those often silenced. He felt that if we do not commit to the ‘art of listening’ in dialogue we risk slipping into dogmatism, imposing our views, or monologue.

But how in practice can authentic dialogue happen? What are its ingredients?

Key ingredients include listening, self-awareness, reflection and attention to context. Referring to professional youth work practice, Collander-Brown (2010) also refers to the metaphors of ‘uncovering’ and ‘making space in the mind’ as processes that support meaningful relationships with young people. 

Here are some principles that can guide dialogue.

  • Don’t “square off”
  • Keep everyone’s dignity
  • Respect what matters to (young) people
  • Build relationship and connections

  • Each member of the group is invited to identify and take a photo image which captures aspects of their lived experience and the environment they share with others. The choice of topic is wide ranging for example, “voice” or “Inclusion”, etc. Alternatively, they can be asked to capture images of their lives over a period of time.
  • Participants are asked take a photo that captures salient aspects relevant to the theme and to share this with others in the class group. They can choose to include a caption should they wish.

Working in this way provides opportunity for discussion on the lived world as experienced and power relations within them. As a methodology it emphasises the importance of voice and discussion as well a a means in which to capture a view and audit of the lived reality of participants.

This variation on story circle is an activity that supports collaborative dialogue.

  • The larger group are asked to form groups of 5-10.
  • Each person in the group should have a blank piece of paper in front of them.
  • The educator/facilitator dictates a sentence about a topic, for example, a common experience such as being silenced or in advance asks a young person to bring a sentence that they think describes a common experience.
  • Each person in the group writes this sentence at the top of their piece of paper and then writes the next sentence in 3-to-5 minutes.
  • When all the group members have done this, they pass their piece of paper to the person on their left.
  • Group members now write the next sentence of the story, which has just been passed to them.
  • When they have finished, the teacher/facilitator asks everyone to pass their paper to the person on their left. They all now should write the next sentence of the story on the piece of paper in front of them.
  • The procedure continues until the piece of paper is returned to the original owners.
  • At this point the teacher tells everyone to write a sentence to finish the story off.
  • Lastly, participants are encouraged to read out loud the stories they have just finished.

The story circle provides opportunity to see that stories are written and can be re-written, and to notice how the stories we might otherwise tell might be told differently by others. It allows for voices often marginalised to be heard.

This strategy enables students to practise discussion in turns, to garner observations and feedback from their peers and to listen to discussion. It provides opportunity to also reflect on what makes a good discussion. It also provides useful structure for discussing sensitive or controversial topics, as different perspectives can be listened to in depth before any direct discussion. It can prepare students well for written work, as it enables students to deepen their questions and ideas about a topic.


The basic strategy

  • Student participants are given a topic that is open to different perspectives and does not have a simple, closed answer. For example, topics relevant to racism or peace and conflict.
  • The ‘fishbowl’ is created by making a circle of chairs around a cluster of 5-6 chairs (depending on your overall group size). The 5-6 chairs are for those who will engage with the discussion. The outside circle is for the students who will listen to the topic and the quality of the discussion.
  • The student participants in the centre have a period of time (perhaps 10 minutes) to discuss the topic. Students around the outside are asked to listen for the content and quality of the discussion. You need to agree together the criteria for evaluating this before you start. (Criteria could include: use of verifiable evidence and/or use of respectful language and gestures and/or everyone having a chance to speak.)
  • After the period of time is up, they switch places with students on the outside and become listeners, with the new students now ‘fish’. The process is repeated.

Teacher/facilitator questioning to deepen thinking:

Summative questioning should focus on enabling reflection. It should focus on evaluating the effectiveness of the discussion and what was learnt from it; both in terms of how to conduct effective discussion as well as about the substance of the discussion itself.

This is a variation on the Jigsaw method where different groups are assigned a specific aspect of a topic. The task here provides opportunity for individuals to work as part of a small group at first and then discuss and share their thoughts and viewpoints with other small groups while also gathering thoughts and viewpoints from them. This method guides students towards producing knowledge and developing thoughts through discussion with others.


  • Small groups of 4 to 6 members should be formed. These are seated in a circle (if possible).
  • The teacher/facilitator assigns a theme to the group. To add a level of complexity to the task different groups can be assigned different aspects of the same topic.
  • Each group discusses their thoughts on the theme and one person takes responsibility for noting down key points of the discussion.
  • After 10 minutes that one person who was assigned as scribe is invited to get up and move to the group to the right of them. The group they move to set out the key points of their discussion. The original scribe makes notes as they speak, noting areas of similarity or difference. After five minutes the scribe is invited to get up and move to the group on the right. The process is repeated until the scribe returns to their original group.
  • Once back, they provide a summary account of points of similarity and difference across the groups visited. The group is invited then to discuss this feedback and revise their views should they wish. The group is given 10 minutes for this.

Once completed the teacher/facilitator opens up a wider discussion on key learning.