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Dialogue and difficult issues

At times, dialogue addresses topics and issues where the degree of difference or disagreement is comfortable, or at the least does not disturb. Sometimes, however, participants find themselves approaching issues and exchanging views on matters where there may be either a profound disagreement or an encounter with painful past history or present events.

Approaching difficult issues in dialogue

The Inter Faith Network for the UK has produced a variety of resources that provide principles and pointers that direct readers to the basic ground rules of constructive dialogue. One of the earliest of these was IFN’s code, Building Good Relations with People of Different Faiths and Beliefs, which can be found on our website. A number of IFN’s member bodies also help those new to inter faith dialogue familiarise themselves with the essentials. Nonetheless, where difficult issues are under discussion, there are some useful additional things to bear in mind. A number of helpful considerations can be made when planning for dialogue on a potentially difficult issue.

Topics, participants and format

  • What is the topic of focus?
  • What are the desired outcomes?
  • Who might you involve?
  • Will there be a facilitator – and if so, who might be suitable?
  • Do certain areas need particular care in discussion? If so, how would these be addressed if they were to arise during the dialogue?
  • Is there a need to consult or involve a person or persons who have particular expertise that can be drawn upon in the course of the dialogue?
  • What advance preparation may be needed? For example, will there be useful materials for consultation during the dialogue (Contentious issues are usually complex and sensitive and time and resources are needed to enable participants to engage with historical analysis, issues of language, issues relating to inclusion and exclusion among other things)?

Thinking about time

  • How much time is likely to be needed in order to enter into fruitful dialogue? What is it possible to cover in the time available, and what might have to wait for another time?
  • If people do not know each other, will there be time for proper introductions?

Thinking about space

  • Is the venue likely to be acceptable to all involved?
  • Is there space for smaller groups to talk amongst themselves, or for participants to sit in a circle if wished?
  • Is there a place within the venue that someone could go to if they felt need for a timeout?

Other considerations

  • Does the dialogue contain an expectation of confidentiality?
  • Will the dialogue be subject to the Chatham House Rule, where ‘participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed’?
  • Will a statement or report be produced at the end – if so, how will it be agreed and cleared?
  • If the dialogue was to break down, or there were acrimonious exchanges, what plans are in place to end the dialogue and recover the good relations that might be affected?

The dialogue itself

Before the dialogue begins reaffirm that the dialogue is for mutual learning and to enable people to develop their understanding of the viewpoints of others; that it will build on commonalities, but honour difference and thought through disagreement; and that all dialogue will be respectful and open. Ensure that all agree upon:


  • The principles upon which the dialogue is based
  • The ground rules for all to follow
  • The boundaries within which the dialogue will take place
  • Whether people will speak formally in turn (at least initially) or whether there will be a more free style of conversation from the start (if this has not been agreed prior to the dialogue)?
  • The confidentiality or otherwise of discussion; how it will be recorded and that no record of the discussion will be published until it has been agreed by all the participants (or those to whom the task of clearance is delegated)

During the dialogue:

  • Avoid assumptions about what is important to others in the dialogue – what might seem a small matter to one person can be a very important to another
  • Ensure that issues are considered equitably
  • Start and continue from a position of principled and respectful openness to views of others and allow all to express their views

When the dialogue finishes

  • If possible, draw out key areas of agreement and points where difference remains. Ensure that all participants are satisfied with the summary
  • Make sure that all participants know what is going to happen next

Recognise that the process was about deepening understanding and helping to build better relationships between participants. Seek to ensure that participants leave on good terms.

Further resources

There are many resources dealing with dialogue on difficult issues. Some from IFN and its member bodies are listed here:

  • Information and learning about dialogue and difficult issues can be found in IFN’s publication Tough to Talk, a report on IFN’s National Meeting in 2014 which focused on difficult areas of engagement. 
  • The Religious Education Council of England and Wales advises schools and other educational institutions on meeting the requirements of the Prevent agenda on how to deal with controversial issues in a classroom setting. It provides a range of resources for schools that may also be of use to others wanting further information. More information can be found here.  
  • The Faith and Belief Forum offers training in facilitation for intercultural and diversity work. This includes the subject of dialogue and difficult issues. More information can be found here
  • Training courses is dialogue skills are also run by a number of other IFN member bodies, including the St Philips Centre and the St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.

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