How to dine with your enemy

“How do we create a dialogue that invites the other to join – anyone we dislike…?
What a challenge in co-creating a future with those we disagree with on such a fundamental level.”

Sarah in the SeaSalt Learning WhatsApp “Pub” 23rd March 2016


Wowsers, this is a big question… asked in the wake of another Terrorist attack, this time in Belgium.. and I don’t have the answer, but somehow I want to answer. And I’m going to work a little in the abstract here, because tipping over into the current situation is likely to polarise or inflame… and I’m trying to work quietly and carefully to offer thoughts –possible ways to “invite the other”, without being “smart-arse-I-know”, without being sentimental, without knowing, really, if it is doable, but with a deep-held belief that it is.

There is no quick fix. Dialogue that invites us to dine with our enemy does not just happen. It’s hard work, it takes relentless patience and practice, it requires surrender of self, of position, of certainty. It’s not particularly joyeous – though it can be. It can be thankless – you can feel misunderstood, insulted, frustrated, angry, exhausted…. but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

The first step isn’t creating the dialogue. The first step is creating the conditions for the dialogue – any dialogue – to happen. And by dialogue I mean simply a place where we talk WITH each other, not AT each other. Conditions are things like time – these conversations, the ones where we are actively inviting a counter-narrative into our lives in order to change outcomes, take an inordinate amount of time, if they are to be done well.
Not an hour, but hours. Not a day, but days. You inch your way toward each other, repelled and rejecting, but also if you are lucky, determined, to get a result.

And space – If I’m going to sit in conversation with someone whose views are fundamentally abhorrent to me, I don’t want to do that in a confined room, where they can fill it with their toxicity or I could fill it with mine – I want big airy places and time to walk it off/ wash it off afterward. The physical space required to do repugnant work is often overlooked.

Bill Isaacs uses a metaphor of a Container for Conversation in his work Dialogue: The Art of Thinking together. Part of his study took place in a steel mill. Above the workers on a day-to-day basis was a vast cauldron of molten steel – thousands of tons of liquid metal held right above the heads of the workers – and they carried on operating underneath it because they trusted that it held. Some of Isaacs’ work is about understanding what creates containers for conversation – how can we construct vast cauldrons where hot-headedness or steel-hard opinions can be melted, contained, held until they can be cooled and forged into something else?

So the conditions for the dialogue mean we have to forge a container – this is the bit that takes time – we’re not properly IN the conversation yet

The container created requires a suspension of judgement – give it up. Who are you to say you would or would not do a thing? or think a thing? In certain circumstance, in context…. What if you are wrong? if you are not prepared to ask yourself that question, if no-one is ever prepared to ask themselves that question, then there is no dialogue -it’s entrenched & we are talking AT. It requires a dropping of your view, however deeply held, however fond you are of it…and writing it in neat sentences in a blog cannot BEGIN to cover how challenging that can be.

It requires that everyone listens to each other – and listens well – shuts up and pays attention, not just to what is being said, but to how…and to what is not being said… and to what is being inferred or assumed. Listening like this gets underneath the surface anger/ hatred/ apathy/ smugness/power-statement/whatever defence you choose for yourself to keep others’ opinions safely away – it leaves the other properly heard. It means they have some responsibility for the bile or the bilge or the constructive stuff that comes out of their mouth, because it isn’t falling on deaf ears – they are not shouting into the void, they are being heard and their words cause responses and reactions.

It requires speaking authentically – airing outrage, naming fear, saying the unsaid, remembering joy and beauty exist, speaking with love and hope, even when that feels kind of weird and risky – it speaks to trust. And authenticity requires working with the full gamut of emotion – nothing can be off limits. If it is there, it is there

It requires respect. Respect for self, for what you bring and who you are and your own importance, along with that same respect, or more perhaps, for your opponent. The best dialogues contain respectful opposition – where differing views can be held, looked at, discussed and acted upon without treating someone as a pariah.

and then there is trust… I have to trust you will stay with me in this conversation. I have to trust that, even though we have such deeply counter-views, you have something to add, that you are worth my time, that I can learn something or act someway different as a result of sitting with you this way. At the start I might well see you as inhumane, as thick, as evil, as other. I might want vengeance, or to shake you hard so you understand what you have done. I might not be able to look you in the eye. And to show trust, I have to get over myself. I may have to sit in your disapproval or rejection. You might see me as any number of worthless things. If we are to build trust, I have to work with that, tolerate it a little.. and I might fire back at you when your view of me becomes intolerable – I’m showing you who I am and I’m no push-over. We have to give a little of ourselves up, reveal ourselves a little – good and bad – I have to trust you won’t throw that back at me and if you do, I have to try again, with a reset until something shifts.

Time. Space. Suspend Judgement. Listen. Respect. Trust. Speak your Truth – simple, yet not easy.


I’m always aware when I write or think about this stuff that it can be read as “woolly” “fluffy” I hear “bleeding heart liberal” in my head – I label myself as a dreamer, as an altruist. Do you know what? It’s not fluffy at all. It’s bloody bloody hard work. It’s far easier to not do this delicate stuff and just crash forth, mono-opinioned, braying and squash everyone else in your sightline. (good morning, Mr Trump). Well…easier for you, maybe…

I don’t work at the upper echelons of mediation or delicate negotiation (I tried negotiating with the Unions a few times – I have a terrible track record). But this stuff is not about negotiation. It’s about long-term, deep understanding of how you conquer your own fear and prejudice – and it can be taught and practiced. You can develop tolerance. There is hope.

Where my heart quails is that this really is what it takes to work with The Other – dedication, time, slow understanding – and we are so busy, so information/ counter information filled, that can feel impossible. But it happens – there are thousands of ways these conversations are happening – not big fat showy conversations, but on the-ground groups, communities, places dialogue can and will happen.

The above isn’t perfect – I’m hoping others will comment below and add stuff to help it get better/ different – but this is the How , as I see it Sarah…(couldn’t have typed all of that on WhatsApp) x

Julie Drybrough is a Organisational Consultant, Coach, Facilitator, Speaker, Blogger & Dialogue Guide. Working with people & organisations to improve conversations, relationships & learning – Doing stuff with love.

Find me on Twitter @fuchsia_blue

6 thoughts on “How to dine with your enemy

  1. We’ll be teasing this out over generations to come, just as the grievances or arguments go back over hundreds of years. You and I talked about motivation yesterday. We can only model or possibly inspire, but the motivation to dialogue has to come from within. We need something transcendant here to activate change – our sum is more than the total of our parts? I know it’s a word that is called on a lot, but it fits – mindfullness. If we all worked and acted in our daily lives with mindfulness of our actions, our thoughts, our consideration of the postiion and reality of “others”, the not me, not mine, developed our critical reflection, and pursued the development of this practice in our children, it might spread and blend…and dialogue would perhaps be easier? Wishful thinking.

    • Hi Emma. I agree – and motivation can come from within..and sometimes external forces motivate us, galvanise a response…. and we can be mindful of our own actions – intending to be careful and considerate and still bump into others’ stuff. For me it’s about dancing in the moment, however clumsily – practicing to be more elegant, knowing it will never be perfect.
      But yes – I’d love to make this the spreading stuff – the stuff of consideration, reflection and connection.

  2. Whilst working in HR (more than a few years ago) I can remember one of our department managers, a guy with many years of experience and considered by most to be a ‘good’ leader, saying: “If a conversation doesn’t come easily, it’s not worth pursuing.”

    Conversely: During a youth working session at about the same time I spoke to a 13 year old girl who was having difficulty dealing with a bullying attitude from one of her peers. When asked why she still insisted on trying to talk with the ‘bully’, her answer “…the most interesting people to talk to are the ones who don’t agree with what I think. It makes me try and understand them and maybe they understand me.” I asked her how long she would keep putting herself in the firing-line of her peer “As long as I can. We’ve got another few years in school together. I think we can find something we agree on and that’ll help with the other stuff.”

    ‘Hard’ conversations are sometimes the most rewarding, but they take work, hold risk (emotional and psychological aswell as the physical) and you should be willing to give it a long time. And anyway, maybe you’ll find that your opinion wasn’t as objective as you thought.

    I am ashamed to say that my memory is such that I cannot remember the girls name and had to move on before I discovered the outcome of her situation. But I hope she was able to achieve what she wanted and found a way to use her tenacity in the wider world.

    • I agreed & disagree with your Guy. Some worthwhile conversations don’t have to be “hard” or “difficult” – it depends on the quality of your relationship. But oft times the stuff that we are most defended or afraid of is the stuff we find hard to talk about or open up to.

      I love your girl. I love that she chose to sit in the fire of someone else’s nastiness – the courage, the poise and the utter maturity of that takes my breath away. Thank you for sharing that. It heartens me x

  3. The key theme I see running through this is listening, really listening. This is not easy. It can be extremely difficult and even painful to just listen to opinions, ideologies, and action proposals we find dangerous, abhorrent, or deeply mistaken without interrupting to react, or giving up and walking away, but if any common ground or understanding is to be found it is essential, Excellent article – re-blogging

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