Dialogical practices and knowledge about dialogue developed in Finland have been valued for a long time. In recent years, this interest has grown significantly. A general review of the current situation is thus in place.

CMI (Crisis Management Initiative) is likely the best-known implementer of dialogue in Finland. This organisation founded in 2000 by president Martti Ahtisaari has prevented and solved conflicts in dozens of countries. Around 90 experts work for the organisation and it has close to 20 projects in the Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eurasia, and Asia. Including women in peace processes is a significant focus for CMI.

CMI brings together different parties to a shared table to resolve conflicts in a constructive manner. Dialogue is used as one of the tools in mediation and conflict resolution processes that may last for years. Finland and Finnish organisations have a trusted and solution-oriented reputation in peacemaking. In many conflict zones it is significant that Finland does not have the burden of a colonial history.

Finland’s story is also a hopeful one. After an exceptionally bloody civil war and other difficult stages, Finland has become one of the most stable countries in the world in the past century.

CMI’s goal is to build lasting peace through unofficial negotiations and dialogues with all parties of a conflict. There are many reasons why CMI has been successful and why its operations have spread. One central factor is its independent status which gives it freedom to move even when official diplomacy cannot. Often there is no single peace process, but rather CMI moves flexibly between many official and unofficial processes and agents filling any gaps which may arise.

The open dialogue approach was developed in the Keroputaa hospital in the 1980s. It is a dialogical approach which was originally created to treat difficult mental issues such as psychosis. Its core intention is to quickly gather together the patient’s closest network and assist them in a dialogue where the patient, their loved ones and the medical staff may all speak on equal terms.

The open dialogue is meant to help all parties – the patient, those closest to her, and the medical staff – understand what types of comprehensive meanings they attach to the crisis situation and to create guidelines for care and support through this.

The open dialogue approach has yielded good results at the Keroputaa hospital for many years, but in the past 15 years it has begun to spread widely around the world. Currently there have been year-long training programmes for open dialogue in over 20 countries. Altogether there have been or are currently around 80 trainings. The longer three-year trainings have been held in Finland, London, Sydney and New York. Active users of open dialogue have been Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Italy, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Japan. Recently Paraguay has also joined this group.

A key figure in developing and spreading open dialogue is professor emeritus Jaakko Seikkula. When he is asked why the open dialogue approach has spread so widely, he says: “I assume the reason is the humanistic view of people. Open dialogues offer people the opportunity to view their most difficult crises as a part of a person’s comprehensive life instead of simply focusing on symptoms and removing them. I believe that the current mainstream psychiatry is frustrating for clinicians and other workers. Especially when our research shows that there is a completely different kind of world available for those suffering from the most acute mental crises. There is interest in this in all the different professions.”

Taking up one’s worries and anticipation dialogues are practices which arise from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare’s persistent research and development work. Professor emeritus Tom Arnkil and his work group began developing and researching these dialogical practices in the late 1980s.

The “taking up one’s worries” method has been created to support professionals who work especially with children, youth and families. With this method a day care or school worker can initiate a respectful discussion with another person – for instance the parent of a child – about matters that worry them. Anticipation dialogues have been developed for situations where multiple agents gather together to think about solutions to a crisis situation of a client family or individual.

This type of setting often includes tensions. Anticipation dialogues usually have outside facilitators. The best-known model of an anticipation dialogue is “Recalling the future” where the people and helpers involved in the crisis have a dialogue about a positive future and the joint action that led there.

Both of these dialogical practices have spread around the world, often together with the open dialogue approach. The “taking up one’s worries” method is used widely in Sweden, Norway and Japan. Anticipation dialogues are known in these countries as well as in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Great Britain. Tom Arnkil believes that these dialogical practices can respond to a challenge that is present all around the world: how skilful people can work together better while respecting people’s unique experiences of their lives. For dialogue to spread, it is also important that people quickly gain experiences of this new way of interacting and the encounters it enables.

Jaakko Seikkula and Tom Arnkil have worked together for many years to develop dialogical practices. Their books Dialogical Meetings in Social Networks and Open Dialogues and Anticipations have been translated to 16 languages. This is an exceptional achievement for Finnish non-fiction literature!

Timeout is the newest addition to wide-spread dialogical practices in Finland. The dialogue model has been created at Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra through experiments in networks to initiate constructive societal discussions. The Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation, Sitra, the Finnish Cultural Foundation and the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland established the Timeout Foundation in 2019 to spread and further develop the model.

The Timeout model consists of three parts:

  1. planning discussions
  2. implementing them and
  3. ensuring their impact.

Timeout dialogues invite different kinds of people into the same circle. The method aims to strengthen trust between citizens and towards institutions, to develop democracy and support societal resilience.

Timeout has quickly spread widely in Finland. Users of the model include ministries, municipalities, organisations, religious communities, educational institutions, businesses and activists. There are also many agencies that give trainings in facilitating Timeout dialogues.

One core reason for the success of Timeout is that it works in any group or around any topic. The method is clear and easy to use. The ground rules for a constructive discussion that have been created for Timeout are displayed in many organisations to support the community’s everyday actions. Most participants of Timeout dialogues give highly positive feedback of the experience.

Facilitators and implementers of the dialogue have many different tools to support the discussion and facilitation. All tools are free and can be openly used on the Timeout Foundation’s website. The tools have so far been translated to English, Swedish, Russian, Turkish and Arabic. Timeout has been used by European foundations and Finnish embassies in Australia, Austria and Italy. It has also been used to support work with Finnish expatriates. Timeout has also gained interest in Spain, Japan, Jordan, Croatia, Latvia and Sweden.

Due to the coronavirus crisis, a series of discussions – the Finnish National Dialogues – was initiated in Finland. These were implemented as Timeout dialogues. So far, there has been over 220 discussions and over 1500 people have participated in them. There have also been participants from many other countries in both Europe and elsewhere. We can thus assume that Timeout will also begin to spread outside of Finland.

Why Finland? This review raises the question of how Finland has become such an engine for dialogical thinking, knowledge and development. There is no one answer to this. When discussing this with Finns working with dialogue abroad, a few interesting perspectives arise.
First of all, Finnish society is still very equal compared to many other counties. Having equal discussions is not foreign to us.

Secondly, Finland lacks the culture of “feigned” discussion. We are not in the habit of chatting about everything and paradoxically this may be why we recognise genuine dialogue and are not confused by its superficial versions.

Thirdly, our country has had a challenging history. On the border of East and West, we have always had to see things from many and even opposing views. Only a century ago, after gaining independence, we had a civil war in Finland which still affects society today. Though this tense situation has also created an agonising effort for forced internal consensus in many places in Finland, perhaps it has also developed our ability to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity, as well as developed skills to solve problems together. These are all skills needed in dialogue!

The current situation in the world seems to show a need for more dialogue. Finns should thus continue this work with dialogue that has started so well. We also still have a lot of growing to do as participants of dialogue.

Now we have exceptional opportunities to learn more about dialogue by sharing our experiences with people from other countries and hearing what they have learnt through using the dialogical practices they have learnt from us.

Read more:
CMI (Crisis Management Initiative)
Open dialogue

Taking up one’s worries
Timeout Foundation 

Dialogue Academy 

Kai Alhanen and Janne Kareinen work as directors and trainers for the Dialogue Academy.


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