Sustained Dialogue is a unique change process which (1) focuses on transforming relationships that cause problems, create conflict, and block change; and (2) emphasizes the importance of effective change over time. Since transforming relationships requires an ongoing effort, SD gradually develops over a five-stage process.
This multistage approach serves as a guidepost for Sustained Dialogue programs and for those in conflict to create sustainable change in their relationships and communities. Appalachian State University followed these five stages during Sustained Dialogue’s debut on campus in 2015-16.
People living with systemic civic challenges decide to engage in dialogue as a way of improving community relationships. They select SD because they feel they need to act and SD makes a difference.
Participants come together to share personal experiences and to map and name challenging community relationships. In early meetings – before trust is built – this talk can be diffuse, and participants vent their grievances and anger with each other. This stage ends when the group agrees, “What we really need to focus on is….”
In more disciplined talk, participants probe specific systems and uncover dynamics of relationships at the root of community challenges to: (1) define the most pressing problems; (2) identify possible ways to change them; (3) come to a sense of direction; and (4) weigh the consequences of moving in that direction against the consequences of doing nothing.
Together, participants design a scenario of inter-related steps to change troublesome relationships and to engage others. They ask five questions: What resources do we have? What are the obstacles? What steps could overcome those obstacles? Who could take those steps? How can we sequence those steps so that they build on another to generate momentum behind the plan?
Participants devise ways to put that scenario into wide effect. Action can take a variety of forms: it can be collective or individual, involve outsiders to the dialogue group, center on creating awareness, engage administrators or faculty, etc.
A transformative dialogue process has helped solve international conflicts. Now, college campuses around the world – including Appalachian – are using it as well, to facilitate communication about complex social issues.