Out of comfort zone

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Kirkuk, Iraq. Image Dialogue Advisory Group DAG

How do spaces of peace dialogues impact the peace mediation process? Ram Manikkalingam, the founder of peace mediation organisation Dialogue Advisory Group, shares his experience.


In a lengthy article dating back to 1978, professor Andrew D. Seidel describes a set of locations in which some of the most well known truce and peace negotiations in the world have taken place. He observes the choices of physical environments and reflects them to social psychology literature. With the observations and hypotheses, he intends to find out how important have the choices of physical environments been in the negotiations.

In the article, Seidel quotes Arthur Bullard’s 1917 book The Diplomacy of the Great War in the description of the peace negotiations of the Turkish-Russian War in 1878:

“The séances were held in a rather gaudy ballroom of the Chancellerie. In the middle of the great room a long table was covered with the traditional green cloth of diplomacy. The head of each delegation had a highbacked chair. Lesser chairs were provided for the lesser lights. And down at the far end of the table a space was reserved for the Turkish delegates. […] A great many books have been written about the Congress of Berlin… It is clear from all of them that very little happened about the “green table” which really mattered. The work of the Congress was not done publicly. The most important deals were put through in secret.”

Listening to Ram Manikkalingam, a peace mediator and the founder of Amsterdam-based peace brokering organisation Dialogue Advisory Group DAG, similar elements occur in the spaces of peace dialogues today than in the past centuries. What comes up even more though is the uncertain and often unpredictable conditions in which the job is done — especially in the conflict zones.

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Ram Manikkalingam, founder of Dialogue Advisory Group DAG

The Dialogue Advisory Group, which works in conflict areas such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Iraq and Basque Country, facilitates political dialogue to reduce violence. In an interview, Ram Manikkalingam illustrates the locations, spaces and the contexts of the peace dialogues in his own work, and reflects on the potential impact of the chosen locations and spaces on the negotiations.

Dialogue Advisory Group works on several conflicts in very different political, cultural and geographical settings around the world. What kinds of places and spaces are usually used for peace negotiations?

Generally, I would use the word ‘dialogues.’ We are starting conversations, not negotiations.

We differentiate ourselves from official facilitators, as it is easier for us to move and meet people discreetly. We work in places in-between governments, armed groups and international organisations. The dialogues can be organised in a fancy hotel, a bar, or a café, or in a discreet or secret place. It depends on the context in which we are meeting people.

For the first meeting, we like to meet people where they are based to make them comfortable and build trust. For example, in Libya, we went and met with armed groups in their homes and bases, when others would not travel there. Once these relationships have been developed, we often use different spaces to help take them out of their situations and challenge their entrenched positions. We might bring them to a neutral, safe place like Amsterdam, where they can talk away from the urgencies of a conflict.

When the UN or governments are negotiating with armed groups, for instance, the dialogues can take place in a capital city. People are sitting around the table, and the UN is leading the dialogue. The UN and the relevant armed actors are present, everyone around a formal table. These kinds of dialogues are often organised in a midsize meeting room of a five-star hotel. These spaces have good light and a table that doesn’t imply too much hierarchy.

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Libya. Image Dialogue Advisory Group DAG

Environments in which we are in — nature or built environments such as cities, buildings and rooms — impact how we feel and behave with other people. Have you paid attention that certain spatial conditions would contribute to a positive outcome in the peace dialogues?

All that depends on the circumstances. In this kind of work, obviously, the right conference room does not lead to a success, or the wrong conference room doesn’t cause a failure. Spaces can make people feel more or less comfortable, but sometimes you have to make people uncomfortable for them to understand that something has to change. For instance, where we control the table seating we would sometimes place people next to each other knowing that it will make them uncomfortable, or we decide not to.

The space also matters in how seriously you are taking the situation and the parties. There is a need to understand the formality and the seriousness of the conversations themselves. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. People recognise the seriousness, but you have to shake them out of formality and have conversations in a more relaxed context. You want to shake them up a little bit when they are hiding behind formality. Similarly, if we see there is a need for a discreet meeting to take place, sometimes it is best to meet in a public place, where one can blend in, like a café — rather than a formal meeting that would make them uncomfortable.

At other times, people have made substantial progress, informally, or in casual settings. Now you need the parties to make a decision, to understand the import of the decision they are making. Then we move to a formal setting.

Often we have to put pressure on the parties of a conflict. We might have to have one-on-one conversations with a person to convey our candid views. So the dialogue can take place in an informal setting with a leader. There is no one space that determines the outcome.

There is also the interesting element of ‘in-between’ spaces on the margins of the actual meeting. For instance, flying together, or having dinner to break the tension, or joining the common prayer. We sometimes use those to address the more sensitive issues in a more informal setting.

In general, in order for people to be able to open up, the atmosphere should be safe and non-judgmental. In a psychologically safe space, there should be a balance between safety and freedom. On one hand, you have to feel that you are not too exposed, but you also should have freedom to leave the room if you feel like it.

I don’t know about freedom, because sometimes you have to limit their freedom to go to war. You have to make people feel pressured. But of course, if the space makes people feel safe, it’s better.

Have you paid attention that certain spatial conditions would contribute to an unwanted outcome in the peace dialogues?

I think…for example, we once had a meeting in a parliament in Baghdad. We were co-chairing a meeting in a big space, in a parliament conference room, with interpreters and all the parties. The conversation in the big room became difficult, so we stopped and continued in smaller groups. In the large space it wasn’t possible to continue the intimate and intense conversation necessary to reach an outcome; it wasn’t conducive to it. Rather the space was dividing people. So we huddled in small groups, and made a breakthrough that way.

Are there guidelines for peace mediators about how the location or arrangement of the spaces potentially impact the dialogues?

Not that I know of. But it would be interesting to, for instance, have guidelines for 3–4 different spaces or contexts — both informal and formal. What kinds of spaces would work well for which conversations.

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Kirkuk, Iraq. Image Dialogue Advisory Group DAG

From your experience, how much attention is usually paid in choosing a location for the dialogues? Are the locations chosen based on how well the location could contribute to a positive outcome?

If we are organising the talks in cities, or countries that are welcoming and safe for all the actors, then we have many options. We can choose meeting rooms from different hotels or organisations. We then have some options. But, if you are invited to a space your options are limited. If you are going to meetings in some parts of the Middle East, even informal conversations take place in formal settings. There might be two big chairs, with two lines of chairs alongside them; then you have to work with this.

And, if we are meeting in places where there is ongoing fighting or bombings, having a safe space is a priority. In those circumstances, it’s not really possible to find an ideal location or a space, just a safe and secure one.

Sometimes we might have a meeting in a parliament, which is much more formal with the setting and the status of the people, fixed according to protocol. In an early phase, we want to keep the conversations informal, but if you want to add pressure so that the conversation would be taken more seriously, we may take it into a formal setting. And, similarly, when people hide behind their formal roles to avoid engaging, we may take it to an informal setting.

How are cultural differences paid attention to?

A lot of our work is to break barriers and bring people together. We want to understand local contexts so we don’t unintentionally offend people, but we tend not to follow local ways in the conversations. Because our intention is to get people out of those contexts, traditions and comfort zones for a fresh or different perspective.


The interview is a part of ‘Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy,’ a project and a series of talks, articles and interviews by Brussels-based design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Spaces of Peace’ looks into crossovers of design, architecture and peace mediation in order to find synergy between the sectors.


SEIDEL, Andrew D. 1978. The Use of the Physical Environment in Peace Negotiations. Originally published in JAE, Vol. 32, №2, Politics and Design Symbolism (Nov 1978), pp. 19–23.

Thoughts on architectural diplomacy and spatial health.

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