A personal reflection by Olga Plokhooij
“I consider dialogue to be the method of the future. It is a method that connects, and of which listening to the other is perhaps the most essential element. Dialogue can be used much more than discussion and debate, in which one’s own interests are often paramount, to develop shared views and support for the major societal changes that are currently under discussion”
– Herman Wijffels, former President of the World Bank,
quoted as ambassador of The Netherlands in Dialogue (2009)
It is the ninth of September, 2009: coordinators, trainers and dialogue facilitators from 36 cities are gathered at the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam for the national meeting of The Netherlands in Dialogue (NID). National ambassadors and partner organizations are present, and they express their wish to strengthen social cohesion in the Netherlands by organizing dialogue gatherings across all segments of society.
I feel butterflies in my stomach as I wander across the room. It is a festive gathering; we celebrate the fact that, since its inception in 2005, we have grown into a national dialogue network with 56 local Days of Dialogue across the country. On this day we will explore the future of NID by hosting 25 dialogue round tables with some 200 stakeholders. Nearly all committed colleagues with whom we have worked on both a national and local scale are present. Copies of the book we created about the first years of The Netherlands in Dialogue are displayed.
We have also invited people from other dialogue movements in the Netherlands. We see this meeting as both an impetus to increase the number of Days of Dialogue and for more exchange between the various schools of thought shaping dialogue across the country. It is a collaboration that is obvious, but it is one that has not yet been established. My butterflies flutter restlessly.
Fast-forward to September 2019: ten years have passed since that memorable meeting at the Okura Hotel. I’m surrounded by boxes of archive material: fifteen years of correspondence, photos, flyers and reflections pass through my hands. I reflect on how this national social movement, The Netherlands in Dialogue, came into being. I’m looking back on what we’ve accomplished, what dilemmas we’ve faced. I’m writing down my personal story to express my appreciation and recognition to all concerned, and to show what we’re proud of. I want to share lessons and dilemmas so that they can be used by people who work with dialogue in society and also by other social entrepreneurs who will most probably recognize our journey in their own work.
The recent decision to terminate The Netherlands in Dialogue in its old form is another incentive to write this article, as well as an invitation I received from the Academy of Professional Dialogue to write a paper for their conference in October.
Story of Our Evolution
The first Day of Dialogue was organized in Rotterdam in 2002, initiated by the municipality of Rotterdam and a large number of social organizations. The urban debates in Rotterdam, among other places, following the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, did not appear to contribute to the cohesion of the city. The Rotterdammers foresaw that dialogue would be more suitable to building understanding and connection than debate, so they initiated the facilitation of dialogue round tables during what they called a Day of Dialogue. The Brahma Kumaris spiritual movement proposed Appreciative Inquiry, first developed by David Cooperrider, as a form of dialogue. Appreciative Inquiry focuses on determining what is already going well and what we dream of for the future. All participants’ experiences contributed to the joint research for this first Day of Dialogue. The event in Rotterdam turned out to be very successful.
Roos Nabben, co-initiator of the Day of Dialogue in Rotterdam and active partner in NID said of this event, “[The] Day of Dialogue offers people safety to experiment with accepting others. People take a few hours to really talk to each other, to listen to someone with whom they wouldn’t easily come into contact in their daily lives. By doing so, you will overcome your prejudices and practice unbiased listening…. Everybody is part of me. The dialogue makes me realize that.”
In 2002 I was working as a board advisor on Diversity Policy at the Municipality of Amsterdam when a colleague from Rotterdam called to tell me about the success of their dialogue initiative. I was about to leave for Guatemala at that moment, where I was working on a political agenda for the Mayan people with former Guatemalan congresswoman Manuela Alvarado. The way she applied dialogue fascinated me. Throughout the country we organized gatherings at which Manuela hosted conversations in circles varying from 10 to 150 people. She made sure that everyone always spoke in an atmosphere of respect and equality. Because of the 36 years of civil war that the country had known, the experiences that were shared had an emotional charge. I was intrigued by the depth of the conversation that came from letting each other talk without interruption, knowing that everyone would have their say, and by the way she held the space for the conversation. I spent the last leg of my trip in Ojai, California, studying the dialogues between Krishnamurti and David Bohm about consciousness. I returned to the Netherlands full of inspiration and the calling to contribute to dialogue in society. I chose the Day of Dialogue as the vehicle to do so.
An Action Plan for Amsterdam
Upon my return in 2004 I started working at Nieuwe Maan [New Moon], a partnership of independent entrepreneurs who formed coalitions around social themes through cooperation between the government, business community, social organizations and others. My colleague Danielle Driessen and I decided to organize the Day of Dialogue in Amsterdam. We visited the organizers in Rotterdam and participated in their dialogue training for facilitators. Based on this, we developed an action plan for Amsterdam that would include, among other things, greater involvement of the business community.
What appeals to me about the concept of the Day of Dialogue is that it makes dialogue accessible. By taking it out of an intellectual sphere and placing it in society, we found that it was attractive to a wide audience. The dialogue approach is simple, and the threshold is low. Although dialogue can be conducted in more sophisticated ways, the simplicity makes the approach well suited to a social initiative aimed at strengthening social cohesion. I look at this approach as a form of Spanish tapas. You taste a little bite, which hopefully makes you long for more.
The tragic murder of cinematographer Theo van Gogh on 2 November 2004 in Amsterdam increased the urgency for people to talk to each other about the ways different population groups relate to each other. It reinforced the commitment of the municipality, and it ensured significant participation of civil society and religious organizations, schools, the police and the business community. On this first Amsterdam Day of Dialogue in December 2004, a hundred dialogues took place. Afterwards the mayor called for a year-round dialogue. In 2005 we organized the second and third Days of Dialogue in cooperation with a growing number of organizations and participants.
National Roll-Out of the Day of Dialogue
After a visit to the Knowledge Centre for Large Cities Policy in 2005, I found myself at the train station in The Hague with my colleague Danielle Driessen and Marcel Kreuger of the LBR [Landelijk Bureau Racismebestrijding, or National Bureau Against Racism, now Art.1].
For some time before this auspicious meeting we had been investing in building a coalition of national partners who would jointly spread the Day of Dialogue throughout the Netherlands. It turns out it was not an easy assignment we had given ourselves. We got a lot of sympathy but no active participation or financial contribution. I felt many of my colleagues had second thoughts about our mission. Now, standing at the train platform as if struck by lightning, I experienced clarity and an ardent drive to spread the dialogue on a large scale. It was vocational call that I would later recognize in a number of my other dialogue colleagues. It gave me the energy to draw from in good times and bad. This moment at the station is still very much in my mind.
A breakthrough followed in December 2005, when then-Princess (now Queen) Máxima was present at the third Day of Dialogue in Amsterdam. Shortly after her visit, the royal Orange Fund, which supports projects that build social cohesion and participation, announced that it would invest in the roll-out of the Netherlands Day of Dialogue for the next three years. Over the previous months we had gathered a number of people from government, business, science and civil society organizations and asked them to commit to our initiative. We now asked them to join us and provide support through their network by a financial contribution and by organizing dialogue round tables. For them, the added value lay not only in the social objective, but also in cross-sectoral collaboration.
In addition to the Orange Fund, the University of Amsterdam, the Knowledge Centre for Large Cities, Rabobank and, later, the Albert Heijn supermarket chain, social housing provider Ymere, the LGBTI support network COC, the Red Cross Netherlands and coworking and meeting space network Seats2meet participated. The strength of this national coalition proved to be enormous. The partners organized their own dialogue round table and invited their customers and employees to join in. Because of the variety of national partners, local initiators of a Day of Dialogue could involve the local branches of these national partners. An important condition for the success of the event was the diversity of those involved. Through contact with the national coalition, the local organizing working groups and at the dialogue round table themselves, target groups that would not normally meet with each other found themselves in conversation, greatly enriching the sense of diversity.
What Does a Day of Dialogue Look Like?
The idea behind the Day of Dialogue is simple and effective. The core of the time consists of one or more dialogue circles of six to eight people gathering and exchanging experiences around a central theme. The conversation follows a predefined process and is hosted by a trained facilitator. On the Day of Dialogue, these conversations take place in all kinds of different places in a city, village or district. There are dialogue round tables at the town hall, in the mosque/church/synagogue/temple, at police stations, schools, banks, supermarkets, the market, the library, the COC centre, welfare organizations and in people’s homes. A local coordinator ensures that the backgrounds of the participants at a dialogue round table are diverse. The mix of people in a dialogue increases the probability that new connections are made between those who would otherwise not easily have met.
A facilitator guides the dialogue, which lasts at least two hours. He or she will be trained for this a few weeks in advance. In this training we practice the basic principles of dialogue facilitation and the questions that have been developed for the specific theme that is of relevance to the local community.
As mentioned, the dialogue approach of NID is based on the Appreciative Inquiry method. AI is the art and skill of asking questions about the desired future. The assumption is that by visualizing the ideal situation we create our own reality, and one held in common. The components of AI were translated into four steps in the dialogue and complemented with moments of silence and introspection.
Four Steps in the Dialogue
- Getting to know each other and the subject of the dialogue
- Sharing experiences about the subject
- Dreaming about the ideal situation
- Doing it! Sharing the first step are you going to take to make your dream come true
These four steps, framed as four questions to guide the conversation (outlined in the ‘Questions for the Four Steps’ box below), have proven to be effective. They offer participants the opportunity to share personal experiences and listen to others while setting aside judgement. Also, by describing the ideal situation in the form of a dream (Step 3 in the box below), a positive, forward-looking energy is created. It is not uncommon for participants’ dreams to touch or overlap. The connection that is experienced in sharing dreams creates fertile ground to name your first step after the dialogue.
The training we offer to large groups of dialogue facilitators in preparation for the Day of Dialogue offers a basic introduction to Appreciative Inquiry. It mainly focuses on engaging in dialogue, practicing as a facilitator and getting feedback. The organizers prepare the guiding questions in advance and provide a compass for the dialogue.
The theme for a local Day of Dialogue is determined by the local organizing parties who know what is happening in their community. Over the years, themes such as Belonging, Me and The Other, Freedom, Living and Working Together and Peaceful Together have been chosen. Here are four questions used to guide a session of the theme of Belonging:
Questions for the Four Steps: Belonging
Step 1: Introduce yourself briefly. What does belonging mean to you?
Step 2: When did you feel completely at home? Where was that? How did that happen?
Step 3: What does the city look like when everyone is part of it?
Step 4: Which step will you take tomorrow to contribute to this?
In the dialogue we use conversation rules that help bring the participants into the right state of mind and encourage joint responsibility. The facilitator outlines these at the start:
• Let the other person tell his or her story
• Don’t interrupt
• Don’t immediately respond with your own story
• Treat each other with respect and kindness
• Speak from personal experience (“I find” instead of “they say”)
• Ask for an explanation if there are any generalities on the table
• Postpone judgements and examine them
• Allow silences
Foundation for the Day of Dialogue
As a foundation for the day, we create six pillars that emphasize our working values:
- It is a social initiative for the city of citizens and organizations. It is not the property of one person or organization.
- Dialogues take place in varied groups of six to eight people at round tables throughout the city/population.
- The dialogues focus on one central theme and follow a fixed approach with four steps.
- The dialogues are led by facilitators who have followed a preparatory dialogue training.
- The personal responsibility of the participants is central to the conversation.
- A central organizer coordinates and takes care of communication and publicity.
Based on the experiences in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, in 2006 we drew up a handbook for organizers, containing the six pillars of the Day of Dialogue and an outline of the dialogue approach. People who wanted to start a Day of Dialogue in their town or village could attend the national training courses free of charge. What we asked in return was commitment to the six pillars, the dialogue approach and membership in the national network of coordinators. Together we would learn from the local successes and dilemmas.
The Impact of Dialogue
Jos Kessels, philosopher and author on the topic of Socratic conversation, has been involved from the beginning of the Day of Dialogue in Amsterdam. For a number of years, he kept track of the development of our dialogue training courses. When we asked him about the power of dialogue, Kessels emphasized that it gives people the feeling of belonging, which is an existential desire. As he said, ‘Opinions about others do not stand firm in the presence of a person who tells his or her own story with explanations, explanations and openness to conversation. Many participants are amazed not only by the other person but also by their own prejudices and assumptions’., “When the traditional ways of belonging disappear and our permanent identities become more fluid, temporary communities take on a more important role. After all, identity is no longer a fixed, lifelong fact, but the sum of those to whom you want to belong at some point. Cohesion is temporary involvement. On a Day of Dialogue, the dialogue is used as a form of conversation that creates space to jointly give meaning to the experiences of participants. By investigating an issue on the basis of their own experiences, participants get to know each other’s vision, points of view and backgrounds. The vulnerable setup is disarming.
When I was interviewed by the local broadcaster as to why I found the dialogue so valuable, my answer was that it is a form of conversation that can help to turn fear into curiosity through clear principles – curiosity about what is going on in yourself and in the relationship with others. You don’t have to defend yourself. There is time, you can listen, you can ask questions. This way you can quietly investigate your own ideas and the way others think and feel. You can consider any new perspectives that open up and decide whether you want to adjust your ideas and actions. You don’t have to change the way you think; you decide for yourself. It’s enriching, whatever the outcome. In addition to a personal, inspirational experience, the dialogue often leads to new initiatives that strengthen mutual ties.
The exact magic of dialogue is not easy to explain in words. It has to do with the very personal character of the conversation. By asking participants about their experiences and not about their views or opinions, everyone is asked to show something of themselves. If one of the participants takes up this invitation and shares their personal story, it is almost a given that the other participants will do the same. Stories will emerge about situations that have touched or inspired people. Participants are often touched or even confused by the fact that their experiences are so similar, while still perceiving each other as being so different.
Loes de Jong, a philosopher who was involved in the Day of Dialogue for many years, put it this way:
I have been working with all kinds of dialogue for years, and I still do not understand exactly how the magic of dialogue arises. The strength lies in a listening attitude, not judging what you hear instantly, but asking questions. Put aside the easy “yes but…”. Then you start to see what moves others and ask yourself what your own motives and beliefs are – and whether they are correct.
The transcending of one’s own experience or vision, precisely because it is articulated, can lead to a common experience of flow where words seem to form themselves in space, apart from the individuals and the group. They come from another place, another consciousness.
Research Into the Impact of the Day of Dialogue
In 2006, we decided to have the Day of Dialogue in Amsterdam studied for effectiveness by Evelien Tonkens, Professor of Active Citizenship of the University of Amsterdam. At this point we were regularly asked about the results of a dialogue and the Day of Dialogue. Sceptics wondered if it really is more than a nice conversation with a cup of tea with like-minded people, and they assumed it wouldn’t have an impact on the social climate in the city. Participants, on the other hand, were invariably surprised by the impact that a 2.5-hour conversation with strangers had on their ideas, and the sense of connection with others. The results of the study, which included attendance at dialogue round tables, in-depth interviews with participants, round table organizers and dialogue facilitators, were promising. The study’s findings were presented in a report entitled ‘Talking Helps’ . The report concluded that ‘incidental, structured group dialogues between citizens from different backgrounds can also make a meaningful contribution to greater mutual understanding and connection’.
Some results of the study:
• 65% of the respondents met people they wouldn’t otherwise get in touch with so easily.
• 80% learned a lot from the conversation.
• 41% changed their minds about the subject under enquiry. More than half of them felt more connected to other Amsterdammers.
After another four months, all respondents were approached to see to what extent the effects had lasted. The 64 surveys and 17 in-depth interviews showed that:
• 81% were stimulated to think by the conversation.
• 64% gained new insights.
• 50% were interested in a return day.
In 2009, seven years after the first Day of Dialogue, we decided to carry out a large-scale evaluation. This time we researched the national network. The evaluation focused on the experiences of the participants during the dialogue. Among other things, the study examined the motivation and goal of participation, the satisfaction of the participants and the possible consequences of the Day of Dialogue.
Among the 12,000 people who entered into dialogue during the National Dialogue Week of 2009, 6,950 forms were distributed by participating local coordinators. Of these, 2,414 were returned, a surprisingly high response rate of almost 35 percent. The national evaluation, based on the surveys and individual interviews, showed that participants experienced the dialogue positively in ways that paralleled the initial study of the Day of Dialogue in Amsterdam.
The evaluation results also showed that, while people with a variety of different personal characteristics (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education) participated in the Day of Dialogue, diversity deserves more attention in the future. The distribution in terms of age, gender, education and ethnic origin was disproportionate; that is, more women than men took part in the survey, the majority were of Dutch descent and almost half of all respondents were highly educated. The dialogue round tables tend to become more homogeneous the longer the Day of Dialogue is established in a community. The need to focus on diversity in the organization and the network every year remains strong. If the organization of the Day of Dialogue consolidates into a small group of people or even one organization, the diversity decreases.
Activities Over the Years
National Program and Handbook
In addition to a handbook we produced in 2006 about the organization of a Day of Dialogue, we designed and later promoted the training for organizers of a Day of Dialogue at a wide range of national and local events. We offered experiences with a dialogue as part of the promotion. We developed workshops, a dialogue facilitator training and, over two years’ time, refined our offer. By the end of 2007 we had a solid national program that included training new local dialogue coordinators and meetings with existing coordinators, a train-the-trainer program for dialogue facilitators and a completed national evaluation with all stakeholders.
Butterfly Power, Butterfly Simplicity
In 2008, we decided to produce a book on our experiences in order to increase national awareness and increase the number of dialogue sites. The book was titled Butterfly Power, Butterfly Simplicity, referring to the impact that the apparently small movement of a butterfly wing can have. In the book, prominent figures and participants spoke about the value of engaging in a dialogue. We also explored what dialogue actually means. The frequent use of the word does not always do justice to the specific conversation type. In the Netherlands, dialogue is widely used in political contexts. There it seems interchangeable with discussion, debate and negotiation. In the book we draw attention to the value of dialogue by explaining how essential attentive listening, equality and enquiry rather than persuasion are in this type of conversation.
Ahmed Aboutaleb, former Dutch State Secretary and now mayor of Rotterdam, writes in the foreword of the book:
Ideally, people should give their housekeys to their neighbors. Trust is the basis of a stable community. But at the moment, mistrust is the most important thing in society and that worries me. If we’re afraid of each other, everything stops…. We have to build bridges to get together and take away distrust. I regard Amsterdam and Rotterdam as social laboratories. The Day of Dialogue is a great initiative that originated from the Rotterdam society. Day of Dialogue should therefore be nominated for the Peace Prize.
National Dialogue Week
2008 was also the start of the National Dialogue Week, taking place the first week of November. By working together and organizing all local Days of Dialogues in one week, the movement became more visible. We filled the week with national events and asked ambassadors to speak out about the social value of dialogue. An example of this is the quote of Wijffels at the beginning of the article. As coordinators, we provided national press releases that could also be used locally to get attention through the newspaper, radio and TV, and we were regularly successful.
European Year of Intercultural Dialogue
The movement continued to gain momentum. As part of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, we organized a European Conference on the Day of Dialogue in 2008, with the participation of representatives from sixteen countries.
Network of Local Coordinators
In addition to the national program, which included the offer to train new local coordinators, we deepened and sharpened our offerings, including in-depth dialogue training. The national network meetings, where local coordinators and trainers were asked to share their successful and dilemmas, grew rapidly. The meetings gave rise to more and more substantive exchanges and an annual selection of a national theme for the Dialogue Week. Also, we began to see more diversity in how the different local coordinators shaped their Day of Dialogue. Some organized the event deliberately without the need for payment, while others focused on specific target groups such as young people or migrants.
The National Organization
Looking back, the dialogue movement went through a number of stages of development.
From an inspired intention in 2005 and learning while doing, we grew into a movement with:
• 100 local dialogue coordinators for a Day of Dialogue
• 40 trained trainers
• About 3,000 trained dialogue facilitators
• 10 national and hundreds of local partner organizations
• Well-known ambassadors
• A foundation with a board
Between 2006 and 2011 we provided national coordination with a budget between 35,000 and 125,000 euros per year, with a peak in 2012 of 300,000 euros because of income from a new partnership. From 2013 onwards, the funds decreased and it became more difficult to find a budget for the national activities. In 2012 and 2013, we explored the possibility of becoming a social enterprise, maximizing the good we could do while providing income for stakeholders.
Bruce Tuckman’s team-phase model provided a framework for categorizing our stages of development:
As outlined, in the early years of 2005 – 2007 we worked part-time with three professionals from Nieuwe Maan and Art.1 to build up the initiative. Thanks to the financing of the Orange Fund and the fact that the professionals weren’t dependent on The Netherlands in Dialogue for their funding, an idealistic motive prevailed over a commercial one. This allowed progress also to be made in less successful stages of the initiative. From 2006 we were able to financially cover a number of the professionals’ hours. Other partners also contributed financially, and offered manpower and training locations. We developed materials such as the organizers handbook and we offered presentations and experiences of dialogue throughout the country. This national aspect of the initiative is still called ‘The Day of Dialogue Everywhere in the Netherlands’.
We offered our training courses and materials free of charge for the local coordinators, who were responsible for setting up and funding their own local Day of Dialogue. In exchange for this, they became participants in the national network of coordinators; we asked them to use the house style of the Day of Dialogue so that their events were recognizable as part of the country’s overall program. From 2005 to 2013 the number of villages or cities with a Day of Dialogue grew from three to 100.
To our joy, the Orange Fund honoured our request for two years of additional funding in 2009 and 2010. Because of this we were able to continue to build on the growth of the national network of local coordinators. However, this growth brought new challenges. Coordinators were now faced with such issues as cooperation with their municipality, applications for subsidies, working with unpaid volunteers and creating communications plans. At the same time, the demand for facilitator trainings and trainer prep continued to grow, which led to more investment in trainings and marketing, including a website and a digital meeting place.
The increasingly active national partner organizations such as Albert Heijn and Rabobank organized dialogue round tables at their offices across the country. The telephone at the national coordination was ringing off the hook and we were flooded by a daily stream of emails. We worked from a mix of proactive vision creation and reactive answering of questions coming to us from the network. In other words, we were learning by doing.
It was an energetic, successful, informal period that we enjoyed with many people. It was also a period that helped build a more well-oiled national organization, where quicker answers could be given to questions asked by both local coordinators and national partners.
In 2010 the national coordinators started to collaborate with students of the Breda University of Applied Sciences who were taking part in ImaginHeroes, a program for social entrepreneurship. Together we created a good back office. The students took care of meeting planning, trainings for local coordinators and the National Dialogue Week. We now called this part of the activities the Foundational Program. The students developed new concepts for marketing and communication and improved the organizational model. The national coordination was complemented by a National Advisory Committee with ambassadors and an Advisory Board. In 2011 we reflected as a total network – national and local – on a sharpened vision and mission for The Netherlands in Dialogue.
Until the end of 2011, the NID movement had no legal structure. However, due to the increasing number of activities, the development of a much larger budget and more brand awareness, a growing number of partners wanted to create a legal framework for our movement. We undertook a comprehensive review of legal requirements.
Establishing a Foundation – and a Pioneer’s Heart
After extensive consultation and deliberations, we set up The Netherlands in Dialogue Foundation at the end of 2011. Although this would help keep the work transparent, some had doubts as to whether the network, which had hitherto been organized on an equal footing, would benefit from a more hierarchical form with a director and a supervisory board. The ownership of the initiative would no longer rest with the initiators and implementers, but formally with the board in which financing partners take part.
From the very beginning of the foundation, I experienced tension around the role of managing director. I discovered that I am more of a pioneer than a manager. More and more time was needed to write annual plans and reports. Meetings became more formal and the board now had the final say. My ambivalent attitude to take on the role of managing director and preference to remain a member of the network retrospectively impacted both the network and my enthusiasm. We were ‘suddenly’ an organization with a planning cycle and a program. My pioneer’s heart hurt a bit.
As foundation we strove for a wider spread of our dialogue approach than just during the Day of Dialogue. The dialogue could be added to existing national initiatives such as the Peace Week, the Week of Respect and the National Integration Dinners. In this heyday of ‘performance’, our three main activities were all beginning to face their own challenges:
I. Foundational Program for Organizing the Day of Dialogue
The national offer for coordinators was called the foundational program. It consisted of the training courses for new coordinators described above. In addition, there were three meetings a year where coordinators met to exchange experiences, share ambitions and deepen their knowledge on issues that arise in connection with questions about infrastructure and development. Together we organized the National Dialogue Week for the first week of November. The network was becoming closer and more idiosyncratic.
II. Methodology group
We next noticed that some local trainers had started to experiment with variations on our form of dialogue. The positive side of this was that the dialogue offer was being broadened, but it made it difficult to guarantee the quality of the dialogue on a national level. Dialogue facilitation trainings have a major influence on the quality of the dialogue facilitators, and thus have a direct influence on the quality of the dialogue experienced by the participants.
Tension arose here and there around the agreements with local coordinators to base their dialogues on Appreciative Inquiry on the Day of Dialogue. We communicated this approach on the national website and in press releases, which created expectations among participants and organizations.
The first real challenge in terms of network growth was beginning to emerge. The network had become so large, diverse and independent that some network members began to express their own preferences. As national coordination body we were celebrating this development but, at the same time, we were concerned about the quality of dialogue guidance. We did not have the people or resources to provide thorough monitoring. We decided to set up a training and methodology working group to examine, in consultation with the network, the concerns and opportunities about quality. This working group consisted of trainers with whom we had worked from the very beginning, supplemented by people who brought experience from different dialogue approaches.
Together with Danielle Dietz from Imaginheroes we worked out the foundation for professionalizing the training courses and monitoring quality.
In 2012 we organized an informal national gathering about the methodology, with stakeholders who also have experience with other forms of dialogue. The gathering was chaotic, with personal pleas for the right form of dialogue and the associated methodology. Some people were of the opinion that dialogue could not be conducted without a talking stick, while others stood behind a Socratic, Bohmian or Appreciative Inquiry approach. I was overwhelmed by the dogmatism; together with my colleagues, we took a good look in the mirror. Was this an effect of our own clear preference for a single dialogue approach? And did we, by choosing the name The Netherlands in Dialogue, perhaps made too great a claim on dialogue for the country? It was valuable that the undercurrent came up and that we were talking.
With decreasing financial contributions from the business community or funding subsidies, we began researching other ways to generate revenue. I personally put a lot of time and effort in this. Significantly, we developed a partnership with Rabobank and the World Wildlife Fund under the name World=U. Our goal was to bring young people together in dialogue on the themes of world citizenship, food and climate. The Netherlands in Dialogue contributed dialogue as a form of conversation, and we provided professionals who could guide groups of young people and facilitate dialogue. The partnership around World=U was a great success, with 35 dialogue groups totalling more than 200 young people who initiated local programs. Could this be a way to independently gain income?
Despite the success, selecting the guiding professionals was a source of tension within the network of The Netherlands in Dialogue. On what criteria was the selection of these professionals based? Whose decision was it to choose who could be professionally hired? Who was going to earn money within the network?
Consolidation and Contraction
The year 2013 was the beginning of a particularly challenging time. The means for organizing national events was drying up. The economic recession was causing the Corporate Social Responsibility budgets of companies to decline. We also had to deal with the ‘not invented here’ syndrome when we try to involve new partner organizations, underlining the common preference for innovation over supporting established initiatives. We explored a number of ideas for creating alternative income, including setting up a national facilitator database, offering paid dialogue trainings and creating new partnerships and pilot programs. However, the ideas generally did not come to fruition, partly because they caused tensions between the national organization and the local network of coordinators. At several regional meetings it became clear that some local coordinators were afraid that inequality would creep into the network if we started earning money. Who would then decide which trainers, dialogue facilitators and advisors would be eligible for professional deployment? How would this relate to the people who organized the local Days of Dialogue on a voluntary basis?
After several regional meetings we came to the conclusion that we would not transform into a social enterprise with its own revenue model. The majority of the network was not in favour of that path. As national coordination, we decided not to force the choice.
Decision-Making and Dialogue
Personally, I experienced this as a difficult juncture as I strongly believed in the possibilities, and professionally I foresaw the difficult times into which we were entering as a foundation. We received several rejections of financial applications from new and existing partners. In retrospect I think the national coordination and the network of local coordinators had different priorities, and we had no clear decision-making process. When we consulted with our coordinators and partners, for example, most of the underlying questions that arose seemed to be about the decision-making jurisdiction of the managing director and foundation board: who decides the future of a network that you have built up with some 100 local coordinators? Is ‘centralized power’ at odds with what we stand for in dialogue? Does the voice of everyone involved count equally?
Because I had committed to making the transition to a social enterprise based on the positive experience with World=U, I decided to resign my position as managing director.
In 2013 Karin Oppelland succeeded me. She had been involved in the Day of Dialogue Rotterdam for many years, and had collaborated intensively with me in The Netherlands in Dialogue for the past year. Karin chose to continue her work with The Netherlands in Dialogue on a voluntary basis, with the focus on the Day of Dialogue and Week. Her motto was, ‘Together we are The Netherlands in Dialogue’. Due to a shrinking budget, national activities were decreasing. As time passed, the national partners withdrew. The network of active dialogue coordinators became smaller but tighter.
And these years of consolidation and contraction were marked by good highs. A number of national partnerships on themes such as happiness, peace and freedom were created in cooperation with civil society organizations such as Pax Christi, the National Happiness Route and the National Committee on 4 and 5 May. The National Dialogue Week continued, with more and more dialogue locally throughout the year. The focus turned to local and regional dialogue. In 2017, people celebrated 10 years of the National Dialogue Week with a dialogue festival in Venray.
The total activity in the network decreased further in 2016 to 2018. There were no more national partners or resources. Dialogue training courses that offered more depth in the choices of theme, consideration of the moderator’s position, and different levels of listening were discussed, and the courses were still offered nationwide. However, the attendance at national gatherings was decreasing and some training sessions were cancelled because of last-minute cancellations by participants.
In 2017 Karin invited six thinking partners, including me, to explore with her the future of The Netherlands in Dialogue. Without resources or partners, and low attendance at national meetings, the question arose as to whether and how the initiative could be transformed or reinvented to meet the needs of our time.
In a few intensive sessions we considered the origins of the Day of Dialogue, the methodology, the emergence of The Netherlands in Dialogue and the course of the movement. During the process Karin decided to resign her position. As her partners, we took on the role of interim board to make her departure possible.
After a few sessions as interim board with the still-active network, we decided that it was time to dissolve the foundation. It no longer had any function as a legal entity and it stood in the way of real transformation because of its hierarchical structure. By abandoning the form, the network of local coordinators could jointly address the question of whether and how they wanted to build up dialogue in society – perhaps under the same name, maybe in a whole new capacity.
We communicated the decision to the network on 19 June 2019. The foundation will be dissolved in October 2019. We decided to put all the developed materials on the website under a Creative Commons license. This way, the lovingly created material would be donated to the world and can move outward. The active members of the network have already met a number of times. Until they come to a conclusion about the future of the network, we have reserved the name of The Netherlands in Dialogue in order to be able to transfer it if necessary.
The spirit of the age has an important influence on the origin and course of its initiatives. Around the time of 2006, more and more social pioneers in the Netherlands were embracing social themes that they did not see the government or any welfare organizations take up. Similarly, many factors influenced the later transitions of the dialogue movement in the Netherlands: the economic recession, a growing appreciation of entrepreneurship, a retreating government, the emergence of networks of freelancers who work together on social themes.
The rise of social media such as Facebook and Twitter and information technology created different kinds of opportunities. It is now possible, for example, to involve large groups of people in activities in a short period of time and in new ways.
Because we live in an era of change or, as Herman Verhagen and Jan Rotmans put it, even in a change of era, there were not many successful social enterprises with a focus on welfare when we started. Femke Zwaal (my colleague from Nieuwe Maan) and I therefore decided to contribute to joint learning by setting up a growth program for social enterprises with the Orange Fund and the McKinsey and Company consulting firm in 2010. At the moment we look back on ten years of social entrepreneurship in the Netherlands with an eye to where the chances are of next achieving sustainable social enterprises in the welfare sector.
The Dilemmas and Questions Over the Years
Over the years, we have achieved great successes with The Netherlands in Dialogue, as evidenced by the Active Citizenship Award we won in 2011 and the recognition we received for both World=U and The Netherlands in Dialogue from Liesbeth Spies, Minister of the Interior, at the Power in the Netherlands meeting in 2012. Yet we have learned at least as much from the dilemmas we have encountered and the questions with which we’ve wrestled – most of which are mentioned in this article. I’ll briefly summarize these dilemmas, with some questions that accompany them:
Learning-Opportunity Dilemmas and Questions
Our dialogue approach is easily transferable and introduces many people to the value of dialogue for the first time. However, there are also restrictions. Dialogue requires a specific attitude and awareness that cannot be captured in a structure. Due to the size of the network and its success it became more difficult to keep addressing both the strength and limitations of the approach. How do you allow and propagate other forms of dialogue without creating confusion in our own network and constituencies?
The Name of The Netherlands in Dialogue
The name The Netherlands in Dialogue expresses a clear, national mission and has contributed to its success. Specifically, we propagate the use of Appreciative Inquiry, so the name is associated with only this approach for dialogue. The name has therefore evoked resistance and a sense of competition in various long-standing schools of thought about dialogue. How do you maintain a clear, national mission and explore the ‘right’ way of conducting dialogue with differing perspectives?
By becoming a foundation our network was formalized. However, the distance between the national partners, the national coordination and the local coordinators grew despite the gatherings and exchanges of thoughts. As national coordination, we ended up in a split. How do you make decisions in an organically grown dialogue network – democratically or by partners in the board?
Growth and Quality
Due to strong growth, at one point we worked with dozens of local trainers who transferred a form of dialogue to local dialogue facilitators. We trained about 3,000 people over the years. Because of the number of dialogue facilitators and trainers, and a poor administration in the first years of the movement, we lost sight of who had been trained and whether someone might be suitable as a dialogue facilitator. How do you maintain quality across a rapidly growing network with limited resources?
The shift from a network of intrinsically motivated people to a more professional body organized as a foundation was impactful. The formal structure brought clarity and financial transparency, but also structures that were less inspiring and more formal. How do you reconcile the benefits of an organic and personally motivated network against the clarity and transparency brought by a more formally structured such as a foundation?
Locally, The Day of Dialogue often was organized by volunteers who worked without pay. Sometimes this was a conscious choice and sometimes it was for lack of resources. This high level of voluntary labour did not always make cooperation with national partner organizations easy. The national partners expected to be able to reach organizers all year round, but many local dialogue networks were only accessible around Dialogue Week or sometimes on one fixed day a week. How do you balance the personal needs of unpaid volunteers with the more structured needs of partner organizations?
The successful youth dialogue World=U, which we set up in partnership with local branches of Rabobank, meant that we needed about ten dialogue professionals who were not only able to properly guide the dialogue in the manner of NID but also able to act as consultants. On what criteria do you select these consultants? Whose decision is it to choose who could be professionally hired?
Dependence on subsidies and donations makes us vulnerable. How do you design a revenue model that delivers sufficient returns and from which everyone benefits sufficiently?
Interest of the Government
In 2009 an advisor to the Prime Minister expressed his interest in The Netherlands in Dialogue. In exchange for funding, he wanted us to establish a national dialogue on sustainability. However, we would have had to impose the theme of sustainability top-down on all local Day of Dialogues. The national coordination chose not to do so. The reason was a matter of principle, as we were a bottom-up initiative, so time and energy were invested at the local level in the selection of a suitable theme that would attract people from all segments of society. How do you combine these fruitful opportunities with the principles of your organisation?
A Promising Time for Dialogue
Parallel to the developments within The Netherlands in Dialogue, beautiful encounters between people from different dialogue movements were taking place. The initial ambition for cooperation in 2009 is now shared by many dialogue enthusiasts in and outside the country. Slowly but surely, the field is ready for more mutual cooperation.
The establishment and first conference of the international Academy of Professional Dialogue, set up by Peter Garrett and Jane Ball among others in 2018, has given a current impulse to the national exchange between dialogue movements. As Dutch participants in the conference, we exchange experiences beyond feelings of competition, and we explore opportunities to connect with each other as dialogue professionals from different approaches. Together we bring decades of experience in the application and training of dialogue in social and organizational contexts.
Back in my office among the boxes of materials from The Netherlands in Dialogue, I realize that these experiences were the beginning of my working with dialogue and applying it professionally. I have developed a dialogical attitude and have increased my awareness by feeling and thinking constructively with others.
The fervent realization that I had at the train station in 2005, knowing that I would contribute to the spread of dialogue in society, feels in hindsight like a vocation. It gave me the opportunity to stand up for what I believe in. It gave me courage, guts and patience. It challenged me to take leadership without stepping out of the dialogue. It taught me to work with others and also to experience limits to growth. I made me aware of the high demands I place on quality and integrity. It brought with it the path of Socratic dialogue, Native-American Talking Circles, Kgotla, Deep Democracy, Bohmian dialogue and the work of Bill Isaacs, Joseph Jaworski, Peter Senge and Margaret Wheatley.
It was a deep experience with social entrepreneurship, and I was allowed to pass on many lessons to others. I got to know my limits by crossing them. This work has taught me when to let go of playing my role. It taught me that you can come back when your contribution is wanted again. It made me experience what transformation really means. But most of all, I learned so much from all those moments when I myself was in dialogue with others. I listened as a participant, allowed myself to be surprised, made myself vulnerable and asked for help when things became difficult.
My focus has been on personal and leadership development for a number of years now. Dialogue plays an important role when it comes to joint research into experiences and wisdom. At Leerweg Dialoog [Learning Dialogue] I give trainings with Renate van der Veen about what we believe are basic principles of dialogue, and we let people get acquainted with different approaches to dialogue. From Spirit of the Age, Femke Zwaal, Renate and I, together with a large network of partners, investigate the spirit of the age and the cooperation society demands of us around social issues.
Over the past five years, together with Rabobank, we have built up a professional and structured form of dialogue within their organization and with stakeholders. This collaboration has resulted in a dialogue centre of expertise within Rabobank. This centre is staffed by four professionals who provide internal advice on dialogue and shape regional dialogue processes. We were delighted to support Rabobank in learning to value, structure and implement dialogue. We trained more than a hundred dialogue facilitators within their organization. At the beginning of 2019, we concluded the partnership and Rabobank continued to develop its own training courses and now professionally organizes internal and external dialogue. We have completed a similar process with the Social and Economic Council, the National Employee Insurance Agency and the Royal Auris Group. Internationally, we promote the dialogue within the Council of Europe’s network for Intercultural Cities.
From a relentless passion for dialogue, I continue to contribute to the national and international development of dialogue initiatives. And I look forward to working with other professionals.
- David Coopperrider, Diana Whitney (2001). A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry.
- Nederland in Dialoog (2008). Vlinderlijke kracht, vlinderlijke eenvoud. Over de beweging Nederland in Dialoog. Amsterdam. http://nederlandindialoog.nl/mediatheek/2
- Nederland in Dialoog (2006). Handbook for organizing a Day of Dialogue. http://nederlandindialoog.nl/mediatheek/2
- Renate van der Veen, Olga Plokhooij (2018). Basisprincipes Dialoog. https://leerwegdialoog.nl/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/1801-Basisprincipes-Dialoog-Renate-van-der-Veen-Olga-Plokhooij.pdf
- Robbert Masselink, Rombout van den Nieuwenhof, Joep de Jong, e.a. (2008). Waarderend organiseren – Appreciative Inquiry: co-creatie van duurzame verandering.