What is Deliberative Dialogue?
Advocates of deliberative dialogue build on a long history of engaging the public. Since colonial town meetings in the 1600s, Americans have engaged in various forms of dialogue as a means for individuals to share opinions with each other in a democratic manner.
SEDL uses the term "deliberative dialogue" to refer to a face-to-face method of public interaction in which small groups of diverse individuals exchange and weigh ideas and opinions about a particular issue in which they share an interest. In some methods of deliberative dialogue, such as the study circle, participants begin the discussion from their personal experience with the issue and proceed over time to examine multiple views and perspectives. In the end, whether or not they come to consensus, the group will ideally understand the complexities of the issue and come to an informed opinion about it.
The concept of deliberative dialogue may be better understood by contrasting it with other methods of voicing ideas and opinions:
- Public opinion research. Daniel Yankelovich distinguishes deliberation—or what he refers to as coming to “public judgment”—from opinion research, which is usually conducted using polls or surveys with which to quickly assess the “will of the people.” He argues that public opinion polls measure only the “vagaries of public viewpoint at a moment in time, however vague, confused, ill informed, and clouded with emotion it may be” (National Issues Forums [NIF], N.D., p. 32).
Deliberative dialogue provides a forum in which to assess the “public’s viewpoint once people have had an opportunity to confront an issue seriously and over an extended period of time” (NIF, N.D., p. 32).
- Public hearings and meetings. Local communities are familiar with the concept of public engagement (although perhaps not the best term) when it comes to school board, neighborhood association, and city council meetings that are open to the public. Unlike these community-centered meetings or public hearings, which often attract the same faces and voices from local professional, policy, and advocacy groups, deliberative dialogue ideally involves representatives of every major point of view in the community, including those who have been historically underrepresented in public forums. Rather than respond to presentations or proposals by experts and advocates, deliberative dialogue participants engage in a structured exchange of ideas on a social issue of common concern in a safe, neutral setting. Participants do not attend only to be heard or to listen, but to think together with others from their community and examine the multiple perspectives available.
- Debate. Deliberative dialogue differs from debate in that dialogue involves two or more sides working collaboratively toward common understanding, rather than two sides opposing each other and attempting to prove each other wrong. In debate, winning is the goal, and thus those involved listen to each other with the purpose of finding flaws and countering arguments. They seek to affirm their own points of view and assumptions and defend their position as the best solution. Deliberative dialogue participants, on the other hand, listen to other perspectives in order to understand, find meaning, and reach agreement. With finding common ground as the goal, they attempt to keep an open mind, and reevaluate, weigh, enlarge and possibly change their own points of view. This open-ended process sometimes produces better solutions than any originally considered (Study Circles Resource Center [SCRC], 1996).
Communities that have engaged in deliberative dialogue report anecdotal evidence suggesting that participants developed shared, better informed—although not necessarily consensus—opinions, clearer definitions of persistent problems, more coherent perceptions of the range of solutions and their consequences, and a sense of public priorities (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory [SEDL], 1998).
Next Page: What Are Some Deliberative Dialogue Models?