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The SD Approach

SD Focuses on Relationships

Sustained Dialogue differs from other change-making processes through its focus on understanding the nature of community relationships, which are often the “problem behind the problem”. Individuals carry culture and stories that ultimately shape national behavior or institutional culture. SD reaches beyond formal institutions to include “whole bodies politic”—everyday community members as well as formal leaders. Our method for changing society is to focus on the five elements of relationship:


How a person or group defines using their own words; the sum total of their experiences.


What individuals want, care about, value, and need, whether material or nonmaterial.


Not just the capacity to control resources, but the ability to make change or influence alongside others.


What we assume rightly or wrongly about others’ choices or identities; our own stereotypes.

Patterns of Interaction

The expected rules of how individuals and groups relate, whether positively, negatively, or not at all.

SD is a Five Stage Process

SD is a unique change process which (1) focuses on transforming relationships that cause problems, create conflict, and block change; and (2) emphasizes the importance of effective change over time. Since transforming relationships requires an ongoing effort, SD gradually develops over a five-stage process. This multistage approach serves as a guidepost for SD programs and for those in conflict to create sustainable change in their relationships and communities.

The "Who": Deciding to Engage

People living with systemic civic challenges decide to engage in dialogue as a way of improving community relationships. They select SD because they feel they need to act and SD makes a difference.

The "What": Mapping and Naming

Participants come together to share personal experiences and to map and name challenging community relationships. In early meetings – before trust is built – this talk can be diffuse, and participants vent their grievances and anger with each other. Later, as trust is built, this stage is marked by consideration of one’s own motives, actions, history, and behaviors, which often require dedicated processing time. This stage ends when the group agrees, “What we really need to focus on is….”

The "Why": Probing Problems and Relationships

In more disciplined talk, participants probe specific systems and uncover dynamics of relationships at the root of community challenges to: (1) define the most pressing problems; (2) identify possible ways to change them; (3) come to a sense of direction; and (4) weigh the consequences of moving in that direction against the consequences of doing nothing.

The "How": Scenario Building

Together, participants design a scenario of inter-related steps to change troublesome relationships and to engage others. They ask five questions: What resources do we have? What are the obstacles? What steps could overcome those obstacles? Who could take those steps? How can we sequence those steps so that they build on another to generate momentum behind the plan?

The "Now": Individual and Collective Action

Participants devise ways to put that scenario into wide effect. Action can take a variety of forms: it can be collective or individual, involve outsiders to the dialogue group, center on creating awareness, engage administrators or faculty, etc.

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