The Spirit of Dialogue: Lessons from Faith Traditions in Transforming Conflict

By Aaron T. Wolf. Island Press, 2017. 205 pages. $30/paperback; $29.99/eBook.

Island Press publishes books on environmental issues, often involving water. Aaron Wolf directs the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation at Oregon State University. He came to the field of conflict resolution from mediating disputes about water in many regions, often across national and cultural boundaries. This work has given him experience with the problem solving practices of many faiths and cultures. He found both diverse approaches and surprising confluences among these traditions. In The Spirit of Dialogue, Wolf explores them with respect and insight, and shares his discoveries of transformative moments in the midst of difficult negotiations.

Wolf identifies “four worlds” and foundational needs, all of which must be considered in conflict resolution: (1) The Physical World expressed in Positions, (2) The Emotional World expressed in Interests, (3) The Perceptual World expressed in Values, and (4) The Spiritual World expressed in Harmony.

The following exercise including well-phrased queries comes from Chapter Six, Box 6.3:

Think deeply about most of the issues that trigger your own ire, and see whether you can identify the internal need that is being threatened, whether physical, emotional, perceptual, or spiritual. (Please do not use issues that are the result of any real trauma in your life or in the lives of your loved ones.)

When somebody cuts into your line in traffic far ahead of you while you are waiting patiently, does that irk you? Why, when it does not threaten your physical safety? Is it more an emotional sense of justice? Do you feel you are following the rules, and so should others?

Think of a political position that really bothers you and try to figure out why. Instead of trying to analyze the views of proponents that you feel are misguided, check in with your internal trigger. Is it a perceptual threat? This means: Is it threatening the way you see the world? A physical threat to current or future generations?

Are there issues of faith or secularism that are irksome to you, even angering? What is threatened in your own spiritual worldview by the issue?

Wolf also offers techniques for groups to facilitate communication and mutual respect. Many of these remind us of activities used in Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops. While no references to AVP appear in the book, the author does cite Compassionate Listening and works by Thich Nhat Hanh and Marshall Rosenberg. The book’s two references to Friends involve the power of collective silence and The Mediator’s Handbook, produced in 1982 by the Friends Conflict Resolution Programs.

Each of the eight chapters is academically footnoted. Photographs and charts illustrate the text, making it accessible to non-academic readers. There is an excellent bibliography and a helpful index. Since any of us may to be asked to mediate a dispute within our family, neighborhood, meeting, or business, if not between international bodies, these techniques and ways of looking at conflict belong in our toolbox.

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