Sample from NCDD's Main Discussion List

Below is a themed, simplified transcript from a December 2003 NCDD discussion about a large-scale dialogue project involving an influential left-leaning organization.

What should we do when our most visible collaborator is perceived as liberal, yet our goals are to involve people with all ideologies?

Focus on how the project is framed.

  1. Figure out the angle for the project that will resonate with a self-described conservative (it would have to do with "values" and "personal responsibility" most likely) and start making the argument.
    Photo of two men in a dialogue group at the 2002 NCDD conference.
  2. At least initially the dialogue has to have no intended "product" or outcome - the initial goal is greater understanding and what happens next arises from the group. Perhaps from initial dialogue an agenda takes shape for a second phase where people are invited into a more action-oriented kind of discussion. But "action" and "outcome" should include intangibles like greater civility in public discourse, new relationships that make other things work better etc.
  3. Lose the "common ground" focus.
  1. Instead of using words like "common" and "connected," stick with something more neutral in the title, like "Conversations for Our Future."
  2. One of the most powerful lessons from deliberation is that we can learn to honor differences when we face them head on rather than deny or ignore them. There is a danger in inviting diversity but emphasizing a search for commonality in the conversation, because it devalues diversity ("Despite our differences, we have so much in common!") Our strength lies in our differences. The challenge is to create a shareable world, in which difference allows people to realize themselves fully and make their contribution while living and working alongside each other, rather than to create a common world measured by compatible behavior or dreams.
  3. Abstractions are not very engaging to most people. Yet it's hard to be very concrete if you want to invite people into dialogue on whatever national issues are on their minds. But I think we'd need something zippier than the appreciative approach to reach a broad range of people, and maybe even something that speaks to a perceived problem or displeasure with the usual ways of doing our political business at election time. Often people come out of their houses to a community discussion when something is bumping up against them that they don't like and that makes them feel like they want to be heard and seen and understood. In the context of an election, what might bump up against people is the down side of national campaigns in the age of television.
  4. Work into the actual process, through ground rules or facilitators or discussion guides or whatever, a strong affirmation that we see the world differently and can learn from and benefit from these differences.

Focus on how the discussion is framed.

  1. I think the idea of "building on what connects us" is terrific. For me it has always seemed that finding some points of agreement on what our longer term goals are would be one way to start.
  2. My hope is that if discussion could start with agreement on basic issues (safety, employment, etc.), it would make it easier for people to listen to each other's different ideas about how to achieve them, including what assumptions are being made.

Answer the "So What?" question; give people a reason to participate.

  1. A practical approach doesn't always have to compromise the dialogue and I think a public engagement campaign would have to address the question: So What? How will what we think and discuss matter? We can encourage groups to ask themselves what they can do locally to work toward common goals and/or to promote dialogue on issues that divide the community.
  2. There has to be a motivating factor for people to try to engage across a gap as uncomfortable as this one in a true spirit of dialogue, not just to have another debate. That motivation arises from an acute sense of discomfort with the polarization -- something in a person's world makes the absence of dialogue a problem. Hence dialogue addresses a need they really feel. It can be frustration because polarization is causing a lack of progress on something they really care about, or the polarization is creating conduct by themselves or others on their side that they feel destroys their integrity, or undermining or threatening their community or even family in a very concrete way, etc. It can't be just a nice idea or something peaceful people like etc.
  3. Citizens are apprehensive about participating in "just talk" with people they don't know. The risks of not being heard, saying the "wrong" thing, not being taken seriously, being implicated in substituting talk for action, etc., appear great. The rewards of participating appear vague if the dialogue is not connected to some clear outcome. The use of powerful metaphors can help people see what makes this worth their time.
  4. It would be interesting to have a national "vision check" - i.e. An opportunity to revisit our "grand themes," metanarrative, etc. and ask ourselves, what do we really want America to be.

It is important for there to be a conservative (or at least neutral) partner for this project. Sponsorship should be balanced.

  1. You have to have a conservative partner to make this work. You have to demonstrate from the start - with the people who are instigating and sponsoring this - that this is balanced and has no hidden agenda or cooptation.
  2. Assemble an advisory board that truly runs the gamut. Think Heritage Foundation representation, NRA, etc. In the past, when I have put together such advisory groups, the stranger the bedfellows the more hard-hitting the point became. You could also use this angle as you seek funding -- if the Bradley Foundation were to fund the endeavor, the issue would become moot.
  3. Find out who is supporting inquiry into how people are leading their lives. Some "family values" type organizations may be interested.
  4. You need "insiders" from all the political/ideological worlds you are wanting to bridge working with you from day one. Only they can tell you the language, the associations, the ideas, etc that will make your effort float or sink.
  5. BUT be careful about the groups that you involve. The group/agency that facilitates the process should have a history or professed profile that is intentionally inclusive and dedicated to an open dialogue free from the urge to unearth a "solution" rather than to promote greater understanding. Configuring a dialogue that has clearly polarized figureheads is merely polarizing and eventually driving a "problem solving model" (binary) on an essentially holistic strategy.
  6. I would look for collaboration as well as facilitation in an organization or two that has a long-standing reputation as "neutral"--if there is such a thing. What comes to mind is a learning institution such as Harvard, who is known for their "research." An institution like that would be perceived as more "competent" and doing this to truly discover how people feel without influencing them.
  7. I would urge the sponsorship/endorsement/leadership/participation of conservatives-liberals who have already come together on important problems and issues. You need inspiring experience by people with lots of credibility in their own "camp" -- that lets people know dialogue is possible, can be productive, and it surfaces in others a desire for dialogue/coming together they have barely acknowledged or think is a pipe dream.

Get individuals involved instead of groups.

  1. You might want to get two big names from both parties to co-sponsor this thing. One source is the Association of Former Members of Congress -- they like to get involved in things that are just plain Good for Democracy. However, if you choose TOO "moderate" a Republican, the benefit will be lost. Involving folks like this would establish credibility during a campaign season that "both sides" are being "represented" (important if we are to influence what the candidates hear from the public).
  2. BUT, working with groups allows for economies of scale and allows you to tap into pre-existing networks. It makes it easier to find people. This is a dilemma to which there is no simple answer and wherever you come down on the issue will be in some ways inadequate.
  3. The problem (as I see it) is that the deliberative democracy field uses rhetoric that is off-putting to people who are not social liberals. So, going directly to people (as opposed to groups) is a good strategy, so long as it's done in a way that pays attention to appealing to many different people -- otherwise, the effort will be wasted as the only respondents will be people you could have reached anyway.
  4. I have found most groups (even ones that proclaim otherwise) to run the projects they get involved with through an ideological screen. So, it is hard to get them involved in things that aren't obviously in their bailiwick. This isn't because of any nefarious anti-democratic mindset; it's just a byproduct of scarce resources and the need to work effectively with what you have. But, my experience is that *people* want -- indeed, need and yearn for -- an authentic connection with politics that goes beyond Democrat vs. Republican and Left vs. Right. So bypassing groups in favor of individual citizens is good.

Make sure conservatives feel welcomed into (and at) the conversations, and that conservative views are both spoken and heard.

  1. Utilize people who have experience and knowledge bringing conflicting groups together in dialogue. As liberals and conservatives, we share some common interests but our core values, beliefs, and manner in which we engage in the political process differ in some important areas. Our different "cultures" may create artificial barriers that need help in dismantling before we can begin meaningful conversation.
  2. Get advice from folks who are able to attract people of different ideologies in (like C Span, whose radio 'call in' programs attempt to involve both left and right).

Focus on design and facilitation concerns.

  1. Facilitators need to separate themselves from the desire for outcomes. Adequate and competent facilitation is directed at understanding rather than the search for an answer or some sort of consensus. It is greater understanding as an urge and a goal that should fuel any dialogue that we attempt to promote.
  2. Switch gears from organizing a large-scale national effort to centralizing around a single, televised small group effort. You CAN have an extremely productive dialogue among people who are highly polarized to begin with, and YES, it DOES require extremely skilled facilitation... so that is why I would focus on the small-group, high-impact, reality-TV model, instead of the model currently being proposed. This would affect the larger 'story field'... make a difference in our collective sense of what people believe is POSSIBLE, in terms of finding common ground among people with different political perspectives.
  3. Have you given thought to the sequencing of how the dialogues would be pulled off? Even though it's very front-loaded, you would get a significant benefit from coordinating with the primary calendar (e.g., do one in New Hampshire in January, etc.). That also allows the project to unfold over time...and it could culminate in something that takes place near Convention Time.

Emphasize outreach and advertising.

  1. Pay attention to the kind of visibility the conversation receives. Invest in advertising in USA Today, TV Guide, etc. - places that reach out to mainstream America.
  2. It might be good to build in to the process some mechanism by which some of the wisdom, concerns and hopes expressed in local dialogues can be presented to political leaders and perhaps media executives and put on a website that serves as connective tissue for all of the individual initiatives.
  3. How the information from the dialogues is compiled and presented will be significant. Perhaps it would be good to hire a "professional evaluator" (agency) to do that job, and also add more credibility to the inclusive, non-biased message we would like to give the public.

Are conservatives less interested in citizen engagement than liberals?

No - conservatives are very interested.

  1. I believe that conservatives LOVE to discuss issues as much as lefties; I just don't think conservatives spend as much money on trying to make it happen - don't "organize" around it.
  2. While the roster of "dialogue people" is definitely Left, the set of people who have a desire to discuss their common issues is certainly multipartisan. I disagree with the idea of a fundamental disconnect between conservatives and deliberation.
  3. Conservatives are having dialogues, just not in such public venues as the liberal community. And just not in such a large group fashion. The conservative approach to civic engagement (if there is such a thing), in my experience, is more of a "live and let live." There are some core beliefs that people share between one another. This is done mainly out of fear that they will be labeled as some kind of horrible social pariah.
  4. I have sat in a room where the dynamic was 3 outspoken liberals, and 25 quiet conservatives.
  5. I would suggest that there are many forms of dialogue that are appealing to conservatives and an anathema to liberals and vice versa.
  6. There is more in common between 'left' and 'right' these days. Utne Magazine had a great trio of articles about the "crunch conservatives" - those who are republican-voting Buddhists who shop at farmers markets and drive minivans and care about their communities.

Yes - Citizen engagement appeals more to liberals.

  1. In this very polarized environment that there are no right-wing groups that enjoy or support democratic conversation and participatory citizenship. I might be wrong here but I can't think of a more disconnected condition than the conservative movement in this country feeling open to dialogue, the two just don't fit well together. But they (conservatives) should be invited to join such a conversation and urged to participate in an inclusive forum where their ideas can infuse the forum with a broader range of ideas than simply the left or progressive political movement.
  2. I think the reason that dialogue has a liberal halo is because it emphasizes egalitarian participation and communitarian outcomes, which are more liberal touchstones, as opposed to deference to authorities/traditions and libertarian outcomes, which are more conservative touchstones. The liberal/conservative aspect is more a barrier to acceptance by political elites, especially elites who benefit by casting everything in a liberal-conservative dichotomy. Most people don't think of themselves as liberals or conservatives, unless pressed.
  3. I am a conservative and I am daily active in civic engagement work. I think it's a danger to discuss assumptions about what has been recorded as the political leanings of the majority of the country without actually having those voices in on the conversation.

Part of the problem may be that conservatives aren't given as much of a voice in D&D programs, and that facilitators (who tend to be liberal) are more interested in outcomes than in building understanding.

  1. I have coordinated regional dialogues in the Philadelphia area where people who self-identified as "republicans" or "conservatives" have called me specifically to say that they are not participating in the activities because they typically find their voices drowned out by the liberals in attendance. They were telling me this because they wanted to participate, but felt intimidated. Stereotyping occurs on the political front, too.
  2. What you stated about the glut of community dialogues being liberal-leaning is true in my experience and I have always worked to balance that fact out. I have attended forums where participants outright state their liberal affiliations during sharing their personal stake in the issue, sparking an ideologically divisive dialogue from the start.
  3. The underlying concern I hear from non-participating "conservatives" is "Is the space safe?" This is a concern of mine as well. It is not to make a blanket statement about facilitators, but is the climate we (facilitators) are fostering in our forums one of consensus-building or one for the creation of a sense of shared understanding about the problem? Do as many perspectives on the problem as possible really get discussed?


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