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Monday, March 19, 2018

The Poetry of Dialogue

Written by Kroc School

The Poetry of Dialogue

Monday, March 19, 2018TOPICS: Student Success

Poems written by Kroc School students
begin quot

The importance of deliberately creating a space in which something might happen, while knowing that that you may never know what that something is, must be one of the most frustrating but profound truths I’ve learned in over twenty years of trying to make the world a more peaceful place. It was a reality I was first introduced to during my time spent at The Corrymeela Community, the oldest center for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. 

For over fifty years, through intentionally designed and sensitively held spaces Corrymeela has explored questions around identity and belonging. A good over-arching question such as “How do we create a place that everyone can call home?” is one whose relevance reaches far beyond the island of Ireland.

Setting the Stage

The 24 students in the Mediation, Facilitation and Communication Skills class I teach at the Kroc School of Peace Studies were recently exploring dialogue and the challenges of facilitating difficult conversations. Such skillfully crafted spaces are needed more than ever all over the world. A required listening for this particular class was an interview between Krista Tippett and Glenn Beck for the podcast On Being.

Every class begins with a short reflective space in which I share a poem before playing "Spiegel im Spiegel", a beautifully simple piece of music by Arvo Pärt. As the music fills the classroom, students are invited to write in their journals. We work in a field where the urgency of our task, perceived or real, and the busyness of our culture often pressures us into rushed action. The practitioners who seem to have found a way to navigate such challenges, while remaining effective and resilient, all practice the same discipline of intentional reflection which is why I was encouraging this approach with the students.

The poem I chose to start this class on dialogue was "Walls" by Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. In our polarized and divided world, these words from 1896 resonate so deeply.


With no consideration, no pity, no shame
They’ve built walls all around me, thick and high
And now I sit here feeling hopeless
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind
Because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed?
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they’ve closed me off from the outside world.

After this reflection, rather than ask people to share their thoughts and responses to the conversation between Krista Tippett and Glenn Beck verbally, each student was given a piece of paper on which they wrote a sentence or two. They then folded the paper over to cover what they'd written and passed the paper to someone else. With each new paper they received, they wrote another reflection before folding it and passing it on. As music played in the background, ideas were expressed, paper folded and pages shared around the room. The process lasted about ten minutes. The end result was 112 reflections that I took away, typed up and shared with everyone. These thoughts provided an enriching and inspiring snapshot of the ideas circulating in the room. Had those 112 reflections been expressed verbally in a ten minute period they would have needed to be shared with a rapidity of one every 5.3 seconds.

Reflecting back in a new way

A year ago I came across a tweet by Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, who said, “You don’t need to be a voice for the voiceless. Just pass the mic.” I love the principle of it. However, I can’t help but think about its limitations. Just because you hand some one a microphone doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily share anything. The context needs to be conducive for sharing. As we work towards including marginalized voices on issues of peace, justice and social change, we’re called to be sensitive, creative and intentional in the ways we broaden the conversation.

I wanted to explore with the class how the skill of a facilitator lies in their ability to reflect back what’s shared in a way that it can be heard in a new way. This can be just as true with our own comments as it is with something someone else shares. I used an approach I’d been introduced to at Corrymeela. I took the reflections the class had shared and created poems. For the purpose of simplicity, I only chose a statement or question that fitted on one typed line. I then looked for emerging patterns and ideas that flowed.

We ended up with seven poems that no one could claim sole ownership of. They were the collective thoughts of the group, expressed anonymously, given freely and offering words that I sowed together in poetic form. Had I asked the students to write individual poems, I would be very surprised if we would have ended up with anything as profound.

Dialogue is not the changing of tides, but the planting of a seed.
Dialogue is a process where I consider other priorities than mine.
How do I listen with grace and still not be silent in the face of hate?
Seeking for understanding. Understanding can take time.
Remember everyone is more complex than one issue.
Believe in the best of each other.
Just be honest with each other.
If you are honest you get humility in response.
Sharing stories = vulnerability.

If an essential skill of a facilitator or mediator is being able to effectively summarize complex and multi-layered dynamics, I think poetry is a great place start. John Paul Lederach has shared widely about the value he finds in the Japanese poetic form of haiku. As individual statements, the reflections the students shared offer valuable insights. Gathered together in the form of a poem, they offer even more.

It was hard to suspend judgment.
What if someone is just objectively wrong?
Who created these ‘walls’? Me? Or Them?
How do I talk with someone who is beyond the rational realms of reason?
Hiding under a mask of lies; cowering under words of truth.
It’s hard to express my reality.
Communication is key.

Reactions to their own words, repackaged as poems

The poems were received by the students with a combination of gratitude and pride. These were their own words. They were simply hearing them in a way they hadn’t heard before. They listened differently to how they would have done if the comments had been part of a typical conversation. The way their ideas were presented to them interrupted the kind of familiarity that typically smothers new insights.

I am not in touch with any feelings.
I had the best ‘intentions’. The outcome, not so much.
It is hard to give second chances once judgment is passed.
In a world where everything and everyone is in constant change,
I see you for who you are; not the words you convey.
To be so wrong, and then so right.
As effortlessly as milk into tea – unity of all things.

Whether it’s by professional choice or practical necessity, those of us who find ourselves in the middle of challenging conversations are in a privileged position. We’re trying to encourage people to listen to understand, rather than listen to reply. How we craft and hold these spaces will have a significant impact on what kind of listening unfolds. It can never be forced, but by paying attention to approaches that are hospitable to sharing and connection, we can welcome new ideas and understanding into a previously barren space. What those ideas and understandings might be is something we have no control over, but my experience has been that they tend to carry with them an illuminating richness and depth that invites us to look at ourselves and those around us in ways we hadn’t done before.

People change their minds in their own time.
I’ve never liked someone so much that I’ve disagreed with so vehemently.
Encountering another love-denied resurrection.
Hearing before speaking. Pause. Wait. Reflect. Then reply.
The most challenging part of a conversation is beginning it.
Is now a good time to talk?

—Michael Fryer, March 19th 2018

Poems compiled by Michael Fryer using the words of Saud Almaweel, Carmen Blohm, Amanda Brown, Nancy Cermeno, Wachira Chotirosseranee, Brittany Curran, Nico Darras, Kaitlyn Dugan, Nicole Eccles, Leah Gage, Eric Gersbacher, Sarah Hillier, Dipshika Karki, Vicky Madera, Viet Mai, Elizabeth Moedano, Kelly O’Brien, Aliz Nagyvarardi, Amanda Ramey, Diana Roldan, Sophie Thompson, Laura Webber and Leslie Willis.

Visit our Academic Programs website to learn more about the graduate programs offered at the Kroc School.



Justin Prugh
(619) 260-7573

Kroc School

About the Author

Kroc School

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies' mission is to equip and empower innovative changemakers to shape more peaceful and just societies.