Why we held the first-ever National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation

Dialogue is a process which enables people from all walks of life to talk deeply and personally about some of the major issues and realities that divide them. Dialogues are powerful, transformational experiences that often lead to both personal and collaborative action.

Why dialogue AND deliberation? Dialogue is often deliberative, involving the weighing of various options and the consideration of different viewpoints for the purpose of reaching agreement on action steps or policy decisions. But deliberation is not nearly as effective if it occurs without dialogue. Engaging in dialogue before moving to deliberation helps ensure that members of a group will be open to others' opinions and perspectives, even when they conflict with their own. This leads to a more open and thorough examination of all possible outcomes, which means better decision-making.

People are leading dialogues (deliberative and otherwise) across the country in schools, in churches, in workplaces, and in virtually every other venue imaginable. They are encouraging people to engage in dialogue about issues ranging from race relations in their communities and violence in their schools to how to handle the buildup of nuclear waste or the rapid rate of development in their region. People are organizing dialogues in order to resolve conflicts, to increase citizen participation in governmental decisions, to educate about important issues and realities, to help people build self-awareness, to improve communication skills, to strengthen teams or build coalitions, to stimulate innovation and to foster effective community change.

Deliberative approaches to dialogue are being applied with increasing frequency in communities, across regions and at the national level. Some of these approaches are designed to bring citizens and government decision-makers together as joint problem solvers. Techniques range from intimate, small-group dialogues to large, town meeting-like forums involving hundreds or even thousands of participants. Evolving communication technologies are sometimes integrated into these experiments to overcome traditional barriers of scale, geography and time.

Problems & Challenges

If you know where to look, you can find references to dialogue and deliberation everywhere in our society today. The problem is that most people do not know where to look. Policymakers, who are increasingly interested in helping their constituents share viewpoints, develop clarity and make recommendations about important policies, don't know where to find out more about dialogue and deliberation. Educators who want their students to understand and transform conflicts aren't sure where to look for the resources they need. Even dialogue and deliberation practitioners themselves aren't clear on where they can find needed information, resources and advice within our evolving field.

Dialogue organizers and facilitators are generally unaware of the many high-quality, low-cost resources that could help them become more effective in their work. They don't know who they can contact for help with specific problems they are facing, or where they can go for training or events that can help them build their skills.

There is a bewildering array of overlapping terms and concepts being used by practitioners and scholars in our field. Even leaders in the dialogue field tend to be unaware of all of the various aliases that the dialogue process adopts in different venues, in different parts of the country and across the globe. It is difficult for dialogue practitioners to understand how their work relates to the practices of public participation, civic engagement, alternative dispute resolution, conflict resolution, organizational development, deliberative democracy, organizational development, consensus building, community building, and so many other practices.

The opportunities for U.S. dialogue leaders to get together with other leaders in the field are rare, and the opportunities that do exist always leave out significant portions of the dialogue and deliberation community. As a result, the group who is organizing community-wide Study Circles in Ohio does not benefit from the years of experience of the Jewish-Palestinian living room dialogue leaders in San Francisco. The success of one-time dialogues in bookstores and coffee shops in Seattle does not give older dialogue programs in Boston needed ideas of how to engage more of the public in their process. An excellent dialogue training program in Akron is run without even the dialogue practitioners in that state finding out about it in time to register. And the success and impact of a range of new deliberative online dialogues remain unknown to the vast majority of organizers of community discussions across the country.

This kind of disconnect is understandable given the tremendous grassroots growth of dialogic and deliberative processes in the past decade alone. But for the processes to be refined and the practice to continue to be developed, D&D practitioners and theorists need to establish ways to stay connected with one another. Means of sharing strategies, asking questions and getting the right people to answer them, getting the word out about events and training opportunities, evaluating programs, developing professional standards and reaching agreement on basic terms and definitions in the field ? the development of all of these things is essential to the growth of the field and the future of the dialogue process.

A Possible Solution

A group of leaders in the dialogue community began working together in the summer of 2001 to organize a national event which would bring practitioners together across the myriad methods, applications and venues in which dialogue is practiced. We were awarded funding for the event by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in May 2002, for a National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation to be held October 4-6, 2002.

It is our hope that the conference will help define, strengthen and shape the future of the dialogue process by giving leaders and future leaders in the field a venue in which to develop sustainable ways to communicate with one another, share resources and strategies, and increase the visibility and effectiveness of the practice.

The Conference was a highly participatory, high-energy event which brought dialogue practitioners together for the first time across models, topics, regions, applications and philosophies for a unique learning, networking and planning experience. The Conference was designed to provide the opportunity for new task forces, networks and committees to form for purposes designated by the participants. The Conference included experiential workshops, opportunities to experience and observe a variety of dialogue models, an exhibition of resources and materials, networking opportunities, a high-tech, large-group town meeting and a community dialogue-style action forum.

Participants were given the opportunity to learn about what's new in the field (new strategies, methods, research, etc.), to increase their skills in organizing dialogues and in helping their dialogue groups take effective community action, to find out how to handle specific problems and challenges they routinely face, and to share their own knowledge and experience with their colleagues.

A report will be produced which will focus on the issues, resources and innovations gleaned from the conference (key questions and challenges for the field; new approaches, strategies, resources and projects of interest to practitioners; information on various dialogue models and tools), new collaborations, projects and networks created at the conference, an evaluation of the event, and plans and ideas for future events.

The Future

The Coalition of organizations that helped make the conference happen decided to become the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, and we have opened our doors to practitioners, theorists, students and organizations across the field who are interested in working with us to continue strengthening and uniting our field.

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation has the potential, in the long run, to make the D&D community vastly more effective. Depending on what we, as a Coalition, decide to do, D&D practitioners can be made more knowledgeable and more skilled, and can be given more and better access to the resources and individuals who can help them in their work. The dialogue and deliberation community can become much more cohesive, with less confusion and isolation.

An accurate understanding and knowledge of dialogue and deliberation can be made more widespread, with more people having an understanding of what D&D are and why they are so effective, how to organize a dialogue (deliberative or not), and how to obtain or train a facilitator. If our efforts are successful, communities, schools, government agencies and others will be better able to foster collaborative solutions to difficult problems ? not only because information about D&D processes will have been made more accessible, but because the practice will have been strengthened and improved.

But the long-term impact of NCDD depends upon the dedication, commitment and vision of members of the dialogue and deliberation community ? not only those who attended the conference and pinpointed some of the actions that need to be taken to strengthen and unite the field and to meet practitioners' needs, but also the hundreds of dialogue and deliberation leaders who were not able to attend the conference. We need to work together to ensure that our burgeoning field and our talented practitioners are able to reach their full potential!

Find out more about joining the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.


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