National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation's

The Learning Exchange

fostering knowledge-sharing in the dialogue & deliberation community

Skip to main content.

Addressing Language-Related Challenges in the Practice of Dialogue and Deliberation Great for Beginners Highly Recommended

Bibliographic Details:

Sandy Heierbacher (Director of NCDD). Unpublished manuscript, 2006.


The true power of dialogue and deliberation lies in their ability to surface new insights and innovative solutions when all voices are brought to the table. But while diversity is an asset to these programs, it brings with it a unique set of challenges. This paper addresses four broad challenges related to language and culture that dialogue and deliberation practitioners regularly face. These are: (1) the challenge of getting culturally diverse participants in the door; (2) the logistics involved in having multiple languages spoken in the room; (3) creating a safe space for those with other language/speech needs or differences; and (4) dealing with participantsí existing preconceptions, assumptions and stereotypes related to language/cultural differences.

(Note from the author:  I hope to edit this paper down significantly and submit it for publication in a practitioner-oriented journal, and I'd love your feedback and ideas! Email me at [email protected] with any advice you have.)

In this paper, Heierbacher outlines innovative, effective strategies that practitioners have used to address each of these challenges. Instead of a comprehensive report filled with theory and statistics, the paper provides practitioners with an overview of the language-related challenges they can expect to face, and a menu of innovative, proven solutions/strategies/tips that come straight from the experience of leading practitioners.

The author's goals for this project were three-fold:

  • To better understand the language-related challenges that dialogue and deliberation practitioners face.
  • To identify and understand a range of tools and strategies that address the power imbalances and logistical challenges that exist wherever there is language diversity.
  • And to provide this information to the dialogue and deliberation community in a useful way.

Heierbacher interviewed several seasoned practitioners who have extensive experience adapting to language and cultural challenges in their dialogue and deliberation programs:

  • Paul Alexander, Director of Regis University's Institute on the Common Good
  • Emily Axelrod, Facilitator, Consultant, and Co-Author of You Don't Have to Do It Alone: A Complete Blueprint for Involving Others
  • John Engle, Director, The Experiment in Alternative Leadership
  • Lisa Heft, Facilitator and Consultant with Opening Space
  • Kenoli Oleari, Co-Director, Neighborhood Assemblies Network

In this 16-page paper, which is freely downloadable from the NCDD website, Heierbacher outline tips, strategies and considerations related to eight important tasks:

  • Build a Diverse Planning Team
  • Recognize that Recruitment is a Continuous Cycle
  • Adjust Recruitment Efforts and Services for Different Contexts and Cultures
  • Prepare Participants for the Experience
  • Make Everyone Feel Welcome
  • Cultivate Adaptable and Skillful Facilitation
  • Provide Skilled Interpretation When Needed-or Empower Participants to Meet the Group's Needs
    Adapt Your Format to Different Cultures and Languages

Resources Listed in the Paper

American Translators Association.  Also see ATA's directory of nearly 6000 translation and interpretation professionals at Each listing provides the individual's language, location, specialties, experience, and contact information.

Charles, Michelle (2004). Tips for Facilitating a Group Dialogue When You Don't Speak the Language of the Participants. Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal, 6, 53-58.

Chasin, Richard, MD (1999). The Exercise on Stereotyping.  The Public Conversations Project.

Engle, John (2001).  Open Space for People Unable to Read.

Hogan, Christine (2005). Successfully Facilitating Multicultural Groups. In Schuman, Sandy (Ed.), The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation, Jossey-Bass, 255-280.

Haverkamp, Jan (1999). Non-Verbal Communication - A Solution for Complex Group Settings. ZHABA Facilitators Collective website.

And accompanying page Hand signs: A series of hand signs to improve communication in workshops by consciously using non-verbal communication.  Zhaba Facilitators Collective website.

Kaplan, Laura (Fall 2005).  Working with Other Language Communities:  Translation and Interpretation.  The Collaborative Edge, a quarterly newsletter of the Center for Collaborative Policy.

Martens, Kim, Rita Schweitz and Kenoli Oleari (2006).  Training Indonesian Facilitators to Lead Community Planning for Women and Children.  In Handbook of Large Group Methods.  Wiley & Sons.

Partnow, Susan (2006).  When English is a Second Language: Suggestions for Improving Communication.  Partnow Communications.

Schoem, David and Sylvia Hurtado, Editors (2001).  Intergroup Dialogue: Deliberative Democracy in School, College, Community and Workplace. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Study Circles Resource Center.  Online tips sheets:  "Tips for Facilitating Study Circles for People Who Cannot Read" and "Tips for Facilitating Study Circles for Multicultural Groups."  Available at

Suggest additions/changes to this listing or discuss this and other resources in the Thataway Forum.

© 2003-2007 National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.
Learn more about us or explore this site.