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"Can our field present a united front to the new Administration? Let's start by seeing if we can develop a set of principles for public engagement we can all endorse..."

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    Principles from UNDP's Democratic Dialogue Handbook

    - full text viewable at

    According to UNDP's Democratic Dialogue Handbook, pseudo-dialogue / fake dialogue / what passes for dialogue are...

    • processes that bring people together mostly for show, demonstrating that opposing parties can sit down together but avoiding altogether the difficult issues that keep them divided
    • processes convened by officials or institutions that would more accurately be named “consultations,” or worse “window dressing” to make authorities seem consultative on policies that they have already decided upon

    Where there is a genuine commitment to use dialogue to create change, however, there are a number of process characteristics that may be considered defining.  Different groups of practitioners have produced different lists of these guiding principles from the five presented here.  But regardless of the actual terms used, most lists capture the essence of what these five characteristics convey.

    Dialogue processes should be characterized by:


    “Dialogue processes that promote democracy must be inclusive because inclusiveness is a core principle of democracy itself.”

    This is perhaps the most fundamental principle of dialogue practice.  It expresses the underlying assumption that, to the extent that everyone who is part of a problem situation can be involved or represented in a dialogue process, the participants collectively have key pieces of the “expertise” they need to address their own problems, as opposed to being entirely dependent on others for solutions.  A related assumption is that, for change to be sustainable, the people in the problem system need to have a sense of ownership of the problem, the process for addressing it, and proposed solutions that result. To develop this sense of ownership, they need to participate in the change process.

    The principle of inclusiveness may be expressed in a variety of ways.  For example, some practitioners specify multi-stakeholder dialogue as a form that assembles all the different groups whose interests are bound up in achieving a successful outcome.  To others, inclusiveness means creating a microcosm of the system that is sustaining a particular problem or pattern of human relationships.  Others articulate this principle in terms of the perspectives or voices that need to be part of the conversation, to suggest that a dialogue process can be inclusive without literally involving everyone.  UNDP practitioner Selim Jahan advocates using the term “broad-based dialogue,” to emphasize this key aspect.

    Joint Ownership

    This criterion requires, at the very least, that the dialogue process not be, in the words of one practitioner workshop group, “an instrument of only one actor, for example the government—to buy time or to accomplish only a government agenda.”  Similarly, it cannot be merely a superficial consultation, argues International IDEA Asia program manager, Leena Rikkilä: “Invite a handful of people and then you talk with them and you have consulted with them and that’s done.” Rather, dialogue is an “exchange,” says Elissar Sarrouh of the UNDP, even when convened by powerful institutions.  It embodies the “‘democratic notion’ that everyone is involved and engaged equally—a ‘two-way street . . . not one side dictating to the other."


    As one practitioner states eloquently, “Dialogue is not about the physical act of talking, it is about minds unfolding.” On one level, this principle addresses the quality of interaction in a dialogue process.  It distinguishes a legitimate dialogue from a “fake” dialogue, where the communication is all one-way, and from a debate or negotiation, where participants focus only on winning as much as possible for their own side.   Many people refer to this quality as “openness,” in the sense that participants open themselves to hearing and reflecting upon what others have to say, to what they themselves are saying, and to the new insight and perspective they may gain as a result.  In Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs describes key behaviors or skills that create this kind of interaction as “listening—without resistance or imposition; respecting—awareness of the integrity of another’s  position and the impossibility of fully understanding it; and suspending—suspension of assumptions, judgment, and certainty.”


    “Through dialogue our natural intelligence is able to reveal itself.  Our humanity is afforded the possibility of recognizing itself,” write the authors of International IDEA’s Dialogue for Democratic Development.64  Like learning, the humanity of dialogue processes helps to differentiate them from other kinds of interaction. This characteristic has a lot to do with how people behave toward each other when they engage fully in dialogue.  It requires empathy—the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes.. “When people start to make an effort to understand the other, the seed of dialogue is planted.”65  And it requires authenticity, as expressed in Bill Isaacs’s fourth key dialogue skill: “voicing—speaking the truth on one’s own authority, what one really is and thinks.”

    In a workshop, teams of practitioners talked about their best dialogue experiences and developed the following list of contributing behaviors. Dialogue participants, they said, should...

    - Show empathy, i.e. truly understanding the position of the other person, instead of reacting to it
    - Exhibit openness to expressing one’s point of view with respect for the rules of the dialogue
    - Maintain a respectful tone, even in the most extreme conditions
    - Have conversation about what truly matters–the real thing
    - Assume responsibility–individually and collectively–for both the problem and the solution
    - Unblock emotionally: “listening to the reasons of the heart that Reason often ignores” 
    - Have the courage to recognize differences and, even more, to recognize common ground
    - Demonstrate the capacity to change

    Long-term perspective

    A defining characteristic of dialogue is the long-term perspective that finding such sustainable solutions requires. Practitioners recognize that the various kinds of crises that afflict societies often require swift action—to stop the violence, stabilize the political situation, alleviate the misery. Yet intrinsic to the nature of dialogue is its focus on the underlying patterns of relationships and behavior out of which the crises emerge. Working at that level is what creates the possibility of sustainable change, and it takes time.  “Dialogue is about using time in a different way, in the sense of realizing there are no quick fixes,” says Swedish Ambassador Ragnar Ängeby. “Time is needed to make deep change possible.”


    Later in the book, the authors outline “three rules of thumb to support the practice of the dialogic approach,” and I think the first two (inquiry and transparency) are vital principles for dialogue and deliberation...

    1. Inquiry is a practitioner’s most valuable tool. In the hundreds of conversations conducted to bring about a dialogue, adopting the stance of an inquirer rather than that of an advocate will go a long way toward establishing the open quality of relationships that is conducive to dialogue.  Being curious about people,listening to their stories, and showing empathy are ways of connecting to them as human beings and treating them with respect.  This means asking questions not just to gather information but to understand and learn from others. The practitioner’s role is to pull people into the dialogue, not push a dialogue on them. Drawing from them the issues they see as important and encouraging them to voice their aspirations are ways to build support for working together to address those issues.

    2. Transparency is essential for building and maintaining trust. Acting with transparency as an individual means sharing relevant information; acknowledging the issues at stake and the problems that arise, even when they are difficult, sensitive, or embarrassing; and bringing forward one’s true thoughts and feelings when they are called for in a conversation. This kind of behavior by dialogue practitioners establishes a basis for people to trust them, and through them to trust the process leading to a dialogue.  This kind of trust is needed to build an inclusive dialogue, which by definition must draw in people from different sides of political, socio-economic, cultural, religious, and ethnic divides.  Working across these divisions and mitigating the power imbalances typically associated with them are some of the greatest challenges in dialogue work. How the practitioner conducts herself or himself as an individual or as part of a team of course will not, in and of itself, address these difficult challenges. Yet, if people perceive the practitioner as genuine and trustworthy, he or she can become a more effective agent in moving the whole system toward addressing them.

    • CommentAuthorTom Atlee
    • CommentTimeFeb 21st 2009

    Wow.  I find these downright inspiring, cutting down to the core of what dialogue is about.  I imagine trying to weave a few deliberative points into this...

    Actually, I'm going to print out a bunch of these principles-statements and cut them up and see where the clusters are....

    • CommentAuthorkcissna
    • CommentTimeFeb 27th 2009

    Tom, thanks for doing that. Reading these from the bottom up, I found much to like, and I was hoping someone would pull them together somehow.


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    • CommentAuthorHusKer
    • CommentTimeJun 22nd 2010

    This criterion requires, at the very least, that the dialogue process not be, in the words of one practitioner workshop group, “an instrument of only one actor, for example the government—to buy time or to accomplish only a government agenda.” Auto transportation service Similarly, it cannot be merely a superficial consultation, argues International IDEA Asia program manager


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    • CommentTimeJul 7th 2010

    hrough the Global Programme on Capacity Development for Democratic Governance Assessments and Measurements, UNDP seeks to assist developing countries produce disaggregated and non-ranking governance indicators to enable national stakeholders to better monitor performance in democratic governance reforms. The aim of the Programme, co-ordinated by the Oslo Governance Centre, is to develop the capacities of government, the national statistics office and civil society in the collection, maintenance and analysis of governance related data and to assist the development of an inclusive and consultative framework for the systematic assessment and monitoring of democratic governance goals and targets expressed in national development plans. The Global Programme from 2008 to 2011 is a continuation of the work that formed part of the Governance Indicators Project from 2004 to 2007.
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