What Are Dialogue & Deliberation?    

NCDD’s website is designed primarily for people who actively work in dialogue and deliberation, but we wanted to make sure that people who simply want to learn more about these processes are able to do so on this website without getting too overwhelmed.

If you’ve just heard about dialogue or just participated in a deliberative forum and your curiosity is piqued, this page is meant for you!

So what are dialogue and deliberation anyway?

Dialogue is a process that allows people, usually in small groups, to share their perspectives and experiences with one another about difficult issues we tend to just debate about or avoid entirely. Issues like racial disparities, youth violence and gay marriage.

Dialogue is not about winning an argument or coming to an agreement, but about understanding and learning. Dialogue dispels stereotypes, builds trust and enables people to be open to perspectives that are very different from their own. Dialogue can, and often does, lead to both personal and collaborative action.

Deliberation is a closely related process with a different emphasis. Deliberation emphasizes the use of logic and reasoning to make better decisions. Decisions about important public issues like health care and immigration are too often made through the use of power or coercion rather than a sound decision-making process that involves all parties and explores all options.

Dialogue and deliberation processes tend to use skilled facilitators and carefully constructed ground rules or agreements to ensure that all participants are heard and are treated as equals.

Dialogue often lays the groundwork for deliberation. The trust, mutual understanding and relationships that are built during dialogue enable participants to deliberate more effectively, and to make better decisions. For groups that want to move from talk to a decision or action, NCDD recommends starting with dialogue and encouraging deliberation after people have had the chance to tell their personal story (in relation to the issue at hand) in a respectful environment.

Dialogue and deliberation are used for a variety of reasons:  to resolve conflicts and bridge divides; to build understanding about complex issues; to foster innovative solutions to problems and launch action; and to reach agreement on or recommendations about policy decisions.

(Note: We also have a page full of quotes from leaders and up-and-comers in this field answering the questions “What is dialogue?” and “What is deliberation?”)

How are these processes really being used?

Citizens, public officials, teachers, students, organizations, artists and activists are increasingly utilizing dialogue and deliberation to tackle issues and conflicts in new ways. Ways that enable people to share power effectively with each other and with those in power, instead of ways that tend to leave people feeling overpowered and frustrated. Ways that welcome and validate all perspectives on an issue rather than hearing, once again, from only the most vocal and powerful parties.

People are leading D&D programs around the world in schools, libraries, churches, businesses, community centers, living rooms and online. People are tackling public issues ranging from race relations in their communities to the buildup of nuclear waste or the rapid rate of development in their region, as well as private issues such as conflicts between groups, changes in a workplace, or personal struggles with crises.

D&D are being used more and more as a means to strengthen democracy, in communities, across regions, online and at the national level and even international level. Some programs bring citizens and government decision-makers together as joint problem solvers; some aim to provide decision-makers and voters with the “informed citizen perspective” on an issue; and others aim to equip a group of citizens with the knowledge and will to take action on an issue themselves.

So what do D&D actually look like?

Techniques range from intimate, small-group dialogues to large televised forums involving hundreds or even thousands of participants. Evolving communication technologies are sometimes integrated into these programs to overcome barriers of scale, geography and time.

The steps in a dialogic or deliberative program vary greatly depending on the purpose of the program, the process used, and the resources that are available.  Typical steps of a program that includes both dialogue and deliberation may include:

Prep work
Get to know the issue, the stakeholders that are affected most, and your participants. Prepare participants for the experience by providing background materials, issue guides that present diverse viewpoints, and details on the process.

Facilitators introduce themselves and the process before proceeding. Participants should feel welcomed and appreciated, and should feel somewhat prepared for what’s ahead of them.

Establish/present ground rules
Also called “agreements,” ground rules are an important part of most D&D processes. Ground rules such as “listen carefully and with respect,” “one person speaks at a time,” “speak for yourself, not for a group,” and “seek to understand rather than persuade” create a safe space for people with very different views and experiences. Adhering to ground rules that foster civility, honesty and respect is what makes D&D so different from adversarial debate and back-and-forth discussion. You may choose to either present a set of ground rules to participants and ask for their changes, additions, and approval, or you may ask participants to come up with agreements that will make them feel safe and productive.

Sharing personal stories and perspectives
Hearing from everyone at the table is a key principle in both dialogue and deliberation. In dialogue, we begin by hearing each participant’s personal stories and perspectives on the issue at hand. We ask “how has this issue played out in your life?” rather than “what do you think should be done about this issue?” or “What’s your take on this issue?” This builds trust in the group, establishes a sense of equality, and enables people to begin seeing the issue from perspectives other than their own. This is especially important when participants have different levels of technical knowledge or professional experience with the issue, or when some participants are not comfortable talking openly about contentious issues.

Exploring a range of views
When a group is fairly like-minded and a wide variety of viewpoints on an issue are just not represented in the group, it is important to make sure the group explores a balanced range of views (this is the big difference between D&D and political activism/advocacy). Some D&D methods meet this ideal by providing participants with carefully developed issue guides that present three or four divergent views on the topic (see National Issues Forums, ChoiceWork Dialogues, or Study Circles). This way, convenors can ensure that participants have the chance to explore and critique all of the primary viewpoints on an issue—even those unpopular with the entire group. Whether the group is exploring their own views or those of others who aren’t in the room, this step prepares them for answering the question “What should we do about this?”

Analysis and reasoned argument
Deliberation is characterized by critical listening, reasoned argumentation, and thoughtful decision-making. David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation, says that “Deliberations aren’t just discussions to promote better understanding.  They are the way we make the decisions that allow us to act together. People are challenged to face the unpleasant costs and consequences of various options and to ‘work through’ the often volatile emotions that are a part of making public decisions.” The previous steps lay the groundwork for this important step.

Deciding on action steps or recommendations
If a deliberative process does not move to action of one kind of another, participants are likely to leave feeling unsatisfied and frustrated. It is vital that participants understand how the process they just participated in will make an impact—or are supported and guided in making an impact on the issue themselves. Depending on the process and the program’s purpose, participants may take any number of actions. They may commit themselves to establishing more dialogue groups to discuss and act on this issue. They may establish new personal commitments to change how they handle an issue such as classism in their daily lives. They may make a policy recommendation to an elected official or CEO. Or they may start planning how they can self-organize to implement the solutions they came up with.

All of the steps above help to ensure that participants are able to create the collective wisdom that is essential for the development of sound, achievable decisions and policies, as well as the common ground and buy-in that is essential for effective, sustainable action to take place.

Want More?

If you’re interested in initiating a dialogue and deliberation program in your own community, workplace or school, look over our new resource that describes the steps that are typically involved in organizing a D&D program and lists some how-to tools that provide you with a great starting place based on the type of program you’re planning to run.

You can also check out the How Others Describe D&D and “Why do D&D Matter?” pages, where you’ll find quotes by some of the top leaders in the field explaining why D&D are vital for the health of your community, your country, and the entire planet.

© 2003-2008 National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.
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