The Power of Deliberative Dialogue
By Scott London
Deliberative dialogue is a form of discussion aimed at finding the best course of action. Deliberative questions take the form "What should we do?" The purpose is not so much to solve a problem or resolve an issue as to explore the most promising avenues for action. Following a usage that traces back to the ancient Greeks, deliberation can be defined as the process of establishing intent and resolve, where a person or group explores different solutions before settling on a specific course of action. "We deliberate not about ends," said Aristotle, "but about the means to attain ends." Deliberation is necessary for what is uncertain, he noted, when there may be reasons for deciding on one course of action but equally compelling reasons for deciding on another.
As a journalist, I had been trained to listen for conflicting viewpoints — that, after all, was the essence of a good story. But as I listened to citizens deliberate in community forums and town meetings, I made a significant discovery: people's disagreements on issues were usually the starting point, not the final outcome, of their deliberations.
Deliberative dialogue differs from other forms of public discourse — such as debate, negotiation, brainstorming, consensus-building — because the objective is not so much to talk together as to think together, not so much to reach a conclusion as to discover where a conclusion might lie. Thinking together involves listening deeply to other points of view, exploring new ideas and perspectives, searching for points of agreement, and bringing unexamined assumptions into the open. The process usually revolves around a pressing question that needs to be addressed, rather than a problem that can be efficiently solved. A problem needs to be solved; a question cannot be solved, but it can be experienced and, out of that experience, a common understanding can emerge that opens an acceptable path to action.
The Greeks may not have invented dialogue, but they introduced the idea that individuals could not be intelligent on their own, that it was only by reasoning with others that they could uncover the truth for themselves. The Greeks understood that if two or more people were unsure about a question, they could accomplish something together they could not do on their own. By questioning and probing each other, carefully dissecting and analyzing ideas, finding the inconsistencies, never attacking or insulting but always searching for what they could accept between them, they could gradually attain deeper understanding and insight.
In this spirit, deliberative dialogue among a group of people is aimed at establishing a framework for mutual understanding and a common purpose that transcends mere ideas and opinions. While it may not produce consensus, it can produce collective insight and judgment reflecting the thinking of the group as a whole — personal disagreements notwithstanding. It is commonly assumed that the only alternatives to consensus are compromise and dissent. But deliberative dialogue offers another possibility by assuming that individuals' views may be to some degree amorphous and indeterminate until they have been, as Madison put it, "refined and enlarged" through the process of reasoning with others.
My own first exposure to deliberative dialogue was during the 1992 presidential campaigns when I observed a number of community forums in the Midwest. I was producing a radio documentary at the time about the mood of the country in the months leading up to the election. My goal was to capture a sense of people's anger and frustration about, as conventional wisdom had it, their being sidelined from the political process. Politicians, pollsters, and opinion leaders spoke alarmingly about plummeting voter turnout figures and a deepening cynicism and disgust with politics. The economy was in a funk and many were pointing the finger at gridlock and incompetence in government. Ross Perot had emerged as an unlikely presidential contender, making headlines with his quirky one-liners and infomercials about the excesses of the Washington establishment. It was a heady time. And what better place to tap public sentiment, I thought, than a series of forums on pressing campaign issues.
Yet as I listened to people deliberating in the forums, I found that they were speaking in very different terms than I had anticipated. It seemed that while politicians and opinion leaders were telling one story, people in communities were telling another. Citizens were concerned about the deepening divide between the nation's rich and poor, not — as the press would have it — about obscure indicators on the state of the economy. They worried about the growing pressures on working families, not about "family values." And they wanted to discuss pragmatic solutions, not liberal or conservative fixes. If anything, the citizens I heard were fed up with the tiresome refrain of conventional, he-said-she-said, left-versus-right, point-counterpoint news coverage. They were neither as ideologically polarized nor as fixed in their political views as the news coverage and opinion polls had led me to expect.
As a journalist, I had been trained to listen for conflicting viewpoints — that, after all, was the essence of a good story. But as I listened to these citizens deliberate in community forums, town meetings, study circles and other venues in the early 1990s, I made a significant discovery: people's disagreements on given issues were usually the starting point, not the final outcome, of their deliberations. As people voiced their ideas, their experience, and their opinions, as they took in the perspectives of others and clarified points of tension and disagreement, the emphasis would gradually shift away from ideological differences toward common values.
That is not to say the process always led to consensus. To the contrary, I rarely saw groups achieve real unanimity (and in cases where I did, the participants were invariably close-knit and like-minded). The process of deliberation, when it worked well, seemed rather to link people's private ideas and interests to something more closely resembling public values — values clarified and corroborated through a process of group inquiry. Publicly considered opinion, I found, was different from public opinion of the kind you read about in the papers or see reflected in the polls.
Since that time, I have continued to observe the power of deliberation, both as a journalist and as a sometime organizer and moderator of National Issues Forums. Nowadays I am also part of an open dialogue group where people from my own community of Santa Barbara, California, gather each week to discuss local, regional, and national issues. These ongoing dialogues are not always deliberative, in the strict sense of the term — to a degree because the object in them is to explore issues rather than weigh the pros and cons of various paths to action. Yet they are a powerful mechanism by which we generate a sense of mutual understanding and common purpose in the community.
Deliberative dialogue tends to unfold in a fairly predictable sequence. The moderator, if there is one, typically begins by welcoming the participants, having them introduce themselves, and reviewing the guidelines for dialogue before launching into conversation. Once the preliminaries are out of the way, participants enter into exploratory dialogue. This is the most delicate and tentative phase of the process since people are usually uncomfortable speaking up at first, particularly among strangers. Sometimes they are suspicious of the process itself, preferring to simply sit back and listen before contributing thoughts of their own. Relating personal stories of their relationship to the issue at hand can go a long way toward establishing a comfortable dynamic in a group.
Beyond establishing trust and cohesion in the group, the exploratory phase of dialogue allows a group to collectively identify what is at issue. This process of "naming" the issue is critical because without it participants may have no way of reconciling what to begin with are merely different and personal perceptions of what is at stake. The process often takes groups in new and unanticipated directions, particularly if they find that the issue they thought they had come to discuss is merely the symptom, or perhaps a part, of a deeper and more complex issue. I have seen this happen in communities where people gather to talk about one set of issues, such as neighborhood crime, but wind up focusing on a broader set of concerns, such as poverty or youth at risk. It can be a daunting experience for participants, especially if they come wedded to a fixed set of ideas about one issue and how to address it. But it can also be an exciting breakthrough, particularly among groups that are diverse, even potentially polarized. Distilling the essence of a problem is, after all, a step towards taking action to resolve it. Besides, there is little point in deliberating about how to address an issue until participants are in broad agreement about what they are coming to grips with and trying to do together.
In principle, deliberative dialogue often does not require an extended exploratory stage because briefing materials, such as issue books or starter videos, introduce the issue and present a range of practical approaches for discussion. The dialogue now shifts from inquiry and exploration to more purposeful deliberation — to the business of negotiating trade-offs and wrestling with what may look like competing choices. This process is usually a rigorous one because people must not only reason together about difficult practical questions but also develop lines of attack that reflect the core values of the group. This can be both frustrating and enlightening. Conflict and disagreement is almost certain, but productive groups can bring forth new understanding of the limits of tolerance — in respect both to the problem and to what might be demanded in resolving it — because, as they weigh individuals' concerns, they begin to discover what is valuable to them as a group.
Groups come together for different reasons and with different outcomes in mind. Some are content to set directions or arrive at a shared sense of how best to address an issue. Others use that collective judgment to arrive at decisions about action. Either way, the deliberative process comes to an end with a process summing up what has been said, points of agreement and disagreement, the concerns that are shared, and allowing for any final comments or clarifications.
The most powerful aspect of a deliberative session is the glimpse it offers of how people "reason" about public issues. Opinion polls and "on the street" interviews — the conventional mechanisms for capturing public sentiment — tell us very little about this process. At best, they give us a snapshot of where people think they stand on an issue; at worst, they offer a distorted and misleading view of how and what people are thinking. A useful opinion, after all, is not a momentary response to an unexamined question but a process of thinking, shaped by the continuous acquisition and rearrangement of knowledge and the activity of inquiring, exploring and evaluating. A question may "invite" an opinion, but it also may modify and recast it. In this sense, people typically do not "have" opinions but are, rather, involved in "opinioning." That an opinion is conceived of as a measurable thing falsifies the process by which people, in fact, do their "opinioning." Polling that relies upon "short form" answers to predesigned questions tends to hide this process from our view and to substitute a "vote" (or checkmark) for a judgment.
Deliberation gets us closer to the truth about how people grapple with issues. The process illustrates that predetermined opinions tend to obstruct rather than further dialogue. When people become identified with their ideas and assumptions, they struggle to defend them and persuade others of their validity. The purpose of deliberative dialogue is to move beyond the clash of opinions and arrive at a deeper and shared level of understanding.
In this way, there tend to be noticeable shifts in dialogue as participants subject their views to other perspectives. Instead of simply talking together or exchanging opinions, people begin actively thinking together — collectively exploring a question, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of alternative points of view, and searching for a common understanding. It is not unlike a group of musicians coming together to play a tune. While each member of the group has his or her own distinct role and musical sensibility, it is only by joining in harmony that they can create something beautiful together. Similarly, a group of people engaged in dialogue can discover a flow of meaning that, like music, reflects a synergy of perspectives that includes but also transcends the contribution of each participant.
Needless to say, not every dialogue succeeds in creating this level of sharing and insight. The difference between an ordinary and an extraordinary dialogue is the presence of some transforming moment, or critical turning point, when participants shift out of an identification solely with their own point of view and entertain the possibility of a common and collective understanding of the issue at hand.
Observing deliberative groups, I have seen this process at work on numerous occasions. In a recent forum on affirmative action, for example, a Mexican-American man related a poignant account of how the system that had promised him much-needed opportunities failed to provide them when he most needed them. The benefits of affirmative action came late in his case, he explained, and it was after he had earned a bachelor's degree and proven his ability to succeed in the system that it began rewarding him with additional opportunities. What he had really needed, he said, was help in reaching the bottom rung of the latter, not climbing the last steps of the way. After he related the story, the dialogue took a dramatic turn from the general to the specific, from the abstract and ideological to the practical implications of affirmative action practices. The man's story brought to light important facts about the policy, and more importantly, it gave the issue a human face.
These "transforming moments," I have found, come in response to distinctive elements of dialogue, including the sharing of personal narratives, provocative and open-ended questions (posed by one participant to another), the questioning of some fundamental assumption, and the collective search for common ground.
Personal narratives. In deliberative dialogue, personal stories allow participants to identify with each other and recognize others' experiences as valid on their own terms — even when they may disagree about their "positions" on an issue. Narratives build confidence in a group because, when participants have a better understanding of where individuals among them are coming from, they are more likely to understand and therefore trust their motives. Most importantly, personal stories are potentially transformative because they allow participants to identify and empathize with one another, even when their own experience has given rise to a different concern. Seeing an issue through the eyes of another person, especially someone of a different culture or background, can be a powerfully affecting experience.
Open-ended questions. Open-ended questions can challenge us to examine our own values and beliefs, put them into words, and subject them to the test of public scrutiny. That process, in the context of ongoing dialogue, may reveal to us the limits of our own thinking and the possibility of an expanded way of understanding the issue at hand. It tends to shift the conversation away from facts, statistics, and other kinds of information to the underlying sense of what is valuable, and to moral imperatives at issue. This is especially important when viewpoints are being posited as "facts" of unclear relevance but clearly driven by values. The process can be particularly effective when one participant poses a direct question to another since it not only stimulates the thinking of the person being asked but, more importantly, allows the participants observing the exchange an opportunity to experience the question vicariously. In dialogue, people often make points by asking rhetorical questions; but a question, if it is effective, will play on the common values of the group by probing what their implications are, in practical terms, and perhaps highlighting some moral tension.
Revealing hidden assumptions. Assumptions are like comfortable frames of reference that save us the trouble of repeatedly figuring things out anew. These mental shortcuts are convenient; but they can be troublesome when we are dealing with complex public issues. Since they are typically resistant to change, they can sometimes lock us into set ways of understanding a problem and thus hinder the emergence of mutual understanding. One of the main functions of deliberative dialogue is to call attention to such assumptions and bring them into the open: our hidden assumptions protect us from challenging thought; people with other assumptions push the challenge.
In his book, The Magic of Dialogue, Daniel Yankelovich has pointed out that the process of revealing hidden assumptions is arguably the most striking difference between discussion and dialogue. "In discussion," he writes, "participants usually stay away from people's innermost assumptions because to poke at them violates unwritten rules of civility." In dialogue, on the other hand, the process requires that "participants be uninhibited in bringing their own and other participants' assumptions into the open, where, within the safe confines of the dialogue, others can respond to them without challenging them or reacting judgmentally."
The search for common values. All too often, people in groups tend to emphasize the things that make each of them separate and unique — the things that set them apart from others — rather than the qualities they share. By searching for points of agreement, particularly values that are held in common, a group can begin to transcend their differences and speak with shared understanding, if not always a unanimous voice. More important, politically, each participant discovers that part of his or her own voice that may contribute to a broader public good.
Deliberative dialogue represents a striking contrast to the sort of discussion and debate that too often passes for public discourse today. In our poll-driven and media-saturated political culture — where rhetoric and sound-bites masquerade as serious ideas, and where political and professional elites often presume to speak on behalf of the people — we rarely take counsel of the public. And when we do, it tends to be in the most superficial of ways — through snapshot polls, perhaps, or "on the street" interviews. Deliberative dialogue illustrates that the consent of the governed is not an abstract or elusive democratic ideal. It is a matter of people playing a greater role in shaping the debate and setting directions for public policy not just by talking together but by thinking together.
This essay was adapted from "The Power of Deliberative Dialogue," published in the book, Public Thought and Foreign Policy, edited by Robert J. Kingston.