Structured Dialogue


Prof. George Kent – TRANSCEND Media Service

Under some circumstances discussions of major public issues could be more productive if the participants prepared a joint analysis about the issues, including observations about the historical background, the major relevant facts, the points of contention, and proposed actions. Even for the most contentious of issues, there would be a great deal about which the participants could agree. Working toward clarifying the areas of agreement and disagreement could help to move the participants to greater agreement. The preparation of a document that articulates the participants understanding of the situation could be carried out with the help of a structured process, based on the systematic examination of brief propositions. Conflicts can be addressed in constructive ways. One path to peace is to work toward a jointly imagined peace.

I carried out an exercise of the sort described here in a paper on infant feeding issues (Kent 2001). The concepts are rooted in studies I published decades ago on the conflicts in the Middle East (Kent 21970a; Kent 1970b).

General Strategy

A group of people representing varying positions on the issues of concern could be assembled, either in a series of face-to-face conference or in a virtual conference using the Internet. Discussion could be stimulated and focused by presenting a series of propositions on the topic for discussion. A proposition is nothing more than a short assertive statement, usually no more than a sentence. A facilitator would start the process, and participants would be invited to offer their own propositions.

A few concrete propositions would be raised for discussion. The facilitator would ask the participants to say whether they agree or disagree with each proposition, without explanation.

They then compare their answers, offer explanations, and note where they have a consensus and where their views diverge. These differences may be due more to ambiguities and uncertainties about the meanings of the words than to real, substantive disagreements. Where there are doubts or differences regarding a proposition, the participants could be invited to spend more time on it. They could be asked to find ways to rewrite the proposition together so it is clearly acceptable to all of them. They might find that, following discussion, difficult statements can be reformulated in ways that are clear and agreeable to all of them.

Where that cannot be accomplished, difficult propositions may nevertheless be useful. They may help in clarifying the nature of their disagreement. Before asking participants to a difficult conflict to come to an agreement, it can be useful to ask them to come to a clear disagreement. That too is progress. This effort to establish common understandings, whether about agreements or about differences in views, can help to establish a shared framework for communication.


Once the dialogue partners write down their responses to the individual propositions (agree or disagree), they should be ready to compare and discuss them. The most interesting points are those on which there are differences within the group. Each such difference constitutes a learning opportunity for all of the participants.

The central purposes of working with the propositions would be to systemically uncover and clarify points on which there are substantial differences in views, and through that means to formulate an increasingly large pool of meaningful statements that are acceptable to the entire group. The group can begin with rather obvious propositions, and then move progressively to more difficult ones. Where there are differences, the group should try to rewrite the propositions until they become acceptable to all.

Some propositions might cause discomfort and disagreement. These differences should be viewed as opportunities for constructive dialogue. That dialogue is the very essence of conflict management work. The challenge is to venture out to the edge and find area in which the participants can work together to enlarge that core of shared understanding. It might be useful to expand the list of propositions and expand the circle of people who in the discussion.

Analyzing Responses to Propositions

The propositions and the responses to them can be analyzed in various ways. For example, if, say, the focus is on enhancing global interactions, the participants could be presented with a list like the following.

Figure 1. A Brief Questionnaire:

For each of the following statements, please indicate to the left of the statement’s number whether you agree (A), disagree (D), or have no opinion (N).

___ (1) The globalization of communication helps to support cultural diversity.
___ (2) Trade benefits everyone.
___ (3) The United Nations should have its own army to quell conflicts.
___ (4) The International Chamber of Commerce is the major international organization responsible for overseeing trade.
___ (5) As a result of globalization, more people in poor countries are benefiting from access to the Internet.
___ (6) Trade should be free and fair.
___ (7) Globalization is moving us dangerously close to the creation of a world government.
___ (8) Trade helps to narrow the gap between rich and poor.

Figure 2. Grid for Analyzing Responses to Propositions:

If the members of a group say whether they agree or disagree with each of a list of propositions, it would be possible construct a table of their answers like the following, with one row for each proposition and one column for each person responding. The responses can be recorded by inserting an “A” or a “D” in each cell. The “No Opinion” responses could be ignored.













Number Agree

Number Disagree


% Disagree










As the figure suggests, we can count across each row and say how many participants agree and how many disagree for the proposition identified in each row. With one more step we can say what proportion agree or disagree, expressed as a percentage.

Some propositions would generate a high proportion of agree and some generate a high proportion of disagree. A high proportion either way indicates consensus within the group.

The propositions that draw a middling level of agreement–say, 25 % to 75 %–are the ones that generate the least consensus. The differences in responses might result simply from ambiguous phrasing or there might be real differences in views among different participants.

These tools can be used to explore why people have varying views. For example, one could do separate analyses, with separate grids, for one group of people from richer countries and another group from poorer countries, to see if people from richer and poorer countries have systematically different views. While different groups might have sharp differences on particular points, there is likely to be a very broad core of common views on the issues even among very diverse groups.

Participants might be interested in comparing their own answers with those of other participants. Every difference in answers between participants can be used to trigger discussions between them.

This process can be viewed as a watered-down and structured version of what happens during international negotiations. The agreements that come out of such negotiations are collections of interrelated propositions. The negotiations undertaken in drafting formal written agreements are dialogues on propositions stated or implied in the draft text. The participants debate specific sentences in what is intended to become their jointly authored document.

The analysis of patterns of agreement and disagreement on specific propositions can serve as a means for bringing similarities and differences into clearer view. Systematic exploration and mapping of areas of agreement and disagreement can help to build shared frameworks of understanding.

Dialogue on Principles

Where the participants begin with a common understanding of the general situation of concern, they may be able to move directly to discussion of the normative principles that ought to guide decision-making in that arena. In that case, instead of talking about propositions of many different forms, they could focus directly on proposed statements about what should be done, rather than about what is true or what is good or bad.

To illustrate, one could construct a questionnaire like that in Figure 1 but focused on what kinds of things should be done with regard to trade in food and agricultural products, as in Figure 3:

Figure 3. Proposed Normative Principles for Trade in Food and Agriculture:

For each of the following statements, please indicate to the left of the statement’s number whether you agree (A), disagree (D), or have no opinion (N).

___ (1) Trade in food and agricultural products should meet the requirements of the human right to adequate food.
___ (2) Trade in subsidized products should be prohibited.
___ (3) There should be no tariffs on any food products.
___ (4) There should be no tariffs on primary food commodities.
___ (5) There should be no tariffs on value-added foods exported from low-income countries.
___ (6) If genetically modified foods are not different from their traditional counterparts in terms of nutrition, composition, or safety, labeling is not necessary.
___ (7) Volume-based restrictions on quantities of foods imported should not be permitted.
___ (8) The impacts of food imports and exports on local food security should be monitored.

___ (9) National governments should be free to bar the import of foods that are likely to harm their people’s health.
___ (10) Consumers should not be required to pay sales tax on locally produced foods.

These proposed principles are merely illustrative. To obtain more meaningful propositions, one could comb through relevant public documents to draw out their stated or implied principles regarding trade. Any set of proposed principles could be used to launch the group’s efforts to jointly analyze, elaborate, and refine the statements until they can arrive at an agreed set. Of course, in the end, they might also acknowledge that there are certain points on which they cannot agree.

Structured dialogue about major public policy issues cannot be reduced to a simple mechanical procedure but it can be useful for drawing out and comparing different participants’ positions. The major phases of the procedure envisioned here would be:

  • First, a particular issue of interest should be identified.
  • Second, a group of interested and willing individuals with different views on the issue should be assembled, either in a series of face-to-face or online meetings.
  • Third, the group should review the purpose and procedures of the exercise. The group could agree to formulate a jointly agreed description and proposal for action for dealing with the issue of concern. A strong facilitator would be needed, one with clarity about both purpose and procedures.
  • Fourth, through extended discussion, the group could try to come an agreement about the action it advocates. It might be more important to achieve agreement about the action to be taken than about how the underlying conflict should be understood. The discussions might be difficult, but the facilitator and the procedure should help to keep the group focused on the purpose. In its final report, the group could spell out not only the points on which it agreed, but also the points on which it could not agree, with explanations for those disagreements.
  • Fifth, others could be invited to carry the discussion further, thus enlarging the circle of individuals who agree, and also further refining and elaborating the statements of principle.
  • Sixth, the points of agreement, initially expressed simply as a series of agreed propositions regarding the issue, could be transformed into a more formal statement from the group, and offered for endorsement and implementation by relevant agencies.


Kent, George. 2001.”Breastfeeding: A Human Rights Issue?” Development, 44() 93-98.

—. 1970a. “Foreign Policy Analysis: Middle East,” Peace Research Society: Papers. XIV: 95-112.

—. 1970b “Perceptions f Foreign Policies: Middle East,” Peace Research Society: Papers, XV: 99-121.


After more than forty years of teaching in the University of Hawaii’s Department of Political Science, TRANSCEND member George Kent retired in 2010 as Professor Emeritus. Currently he serves as an Adjunct Professor with the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia and also with the Department of Transformative Social Change Program at Saybrook University in California. He teaches an online course on the Human Right to Adequate Food for both these universities. Professor Kent has worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme and several nongovernmental organizations. He is on the Board of Directors of the International Peace Research Association Foundation. His major books on food policy issues are Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food, Global Obligations for the Right to Food, Ending Hunger Worldwide, Regulating Infant Formula, Caring about Hunger, and Governments Push Infant Formula. He serves as Deputy Editor of the World Public Health Association’s online journal, World Nutrition and as Associate Editor for Public Health Nutrition. He can be reached at Academia Website Google Scholar.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Jan 2020.

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One Response to “Structured Dialogue”

  1. “Civilization is almost exclusively masculine, a civilization of power, in which woman has been thrust aside in the shade… The one sided civilization is crashing along a series of catastrophes at a tremendous speed because of its one-sidedness.” – Tagore

    “As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries… . Conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance.”- Michael Oakeshott

    A Wrap-up Speech
    At the International Academic Peace Conference on 28 September 2001 in Commemoration of the 20th UN International Day of Peace, Kyung Hee University, Republic of Korea
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