Using training from Essential Partners, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute initiated in Arkansas a series of dialogues about the use of Dicamba, a common herbicide.

Change Moves at the Pace of Trust

TAKEAWAY: Essential Partners is scaling-up the proven principles of family therapy to larger communities and even whole nations.

Few countries have suffered the pain of Liberia. This African nation of 5 million people has endured two devastating civil wars between 1989 and 2003, leading to more than a quarter-million people killed and a million driven from their homes. Following free elections in 2005 and as part of national reconciliation, Liberians were encouraged to speak together about the root causes of the wars. Cambridge, MA-based Essential Partners was invited by Liberia’s government to help in the healing.  

Formed in 1989, Essential Partners began as a team of therapists who realized that the same tools used to help families have difficult conversations might also help foster healthier public discourse. Essential Partners developed its signature approach, called Reflective Structured Dialogue, to help communities “reboot” the ways they held important conversations. This approach draws on research done across many fields, from neurobiology to negotiation. Those trained in Reflective Structured Dialogue learn to recognize when their feelings and behaviors in a discussion are sliding off the rails. They also become aware of the traps that stymie communication, not just the obvious ones like outbursts and interruptions, but also the more- insidious but equally corrosive ones, such as stereotyping and superficial listening. Reflective Structured Dialogue is a methodology born in family relationships and then adapted to meet the needs of business and community situations.  

Since the war, people have had to rebuild their entire society, and part of that is learning how to live alongside people with very different views.

The first step in an Essential Partners intervention is to understand the participants who will be engaged in the conversation. This is usually done by working closely with groups or individual community members and analyzing their respective emotional and psychological journeys. This was a massive challenge in Liberia. The civil wars were so long, cruel and widespread that nearly everyone had a heartbreaking story.  

Rebuilding a sense of community and country would be a struggle for everyone, but reintegration was especially difficult for those drawn into combat. Among the most vulnerable: women who were either partnered with combatants, or former combatants themselves. They were stigmatized for their involvement in the fighting and shamed for the sexual violence that most of them endured. “If the community shuns them, they have no practical way of meeting needs for food and shelter,” explained Ginny Morrison, Liberian Initiative co-director. “Since the war, people have had to rebuild their entire society, and part of that is learning how to live alongside people with very different views.” 

Essential Partners collaborated with four Liberian organizations as well as the international peace-building nonprofit Mediators Beyond Borders to explore how the healing of women could kickstart the nation’s recovery. Their pilot project, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” tapped into the power women have to change their towns and villages. Local partners helped women build relationships in their communities and learn new methods of farming that were both sustainable and profitable. This provided women and their families with a consistent livelihood and gave them a fresh chance to reintegrate into their local societies. “There is incredible potential for these women, some of whom have played leadership roles,” remarked project co-director Prabha Sankaranarayan. “Think of what is possible if they are re-empowered, but in a way that makes them a part of their communities.”

Liberia is just one example of the work that Essential Partners has done in post-conflict communities around the world. The techniques of Reflective Structured Dialogue are also put to work in the U.S. and aimed at bridging the differences that make headlines. For example, Essential Partners helped to bring together Christian fundamentalist spiritual leaders and a group of scientists for a week-long discussion on science and biblical faith. Brought together by the BioLogos Foundation, the pastors and scientists met at Gordon College, a Christian college in Massachusetts. From the outset, Essential Partners made it clear that the goal was not to change the minds of one group or another, but instead, to talk freely in a depoliticized setting. Together, the pastors and scientists were able to discuss issues and ask questions without jeopardizing their deepest convictions or placing them at risk of alienating their respective communities.  

The Essential Partners approach requires diligent groundwork before the first conversations are ever held. Essential Partners co-executive director John Sarrouf makes it clear: “This is not speed dating.” That said, the principles of Reflective Structured Dialogue have shown promise in complex situations, including regions shattered by war. The key is local empowerment, starting with listening closely to the community. Says Katie Hyten, co-executive director, “Community members understand their own problems better than we ever could. Our goal is to help people have the vital conversations they think they need to have, not the one we think they should.”