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What is the relationship between dialogue and deliberation?

This short piece was written by Sandy Heierbacher, NCDD's Director, to accompany and hopefully add clarity to the definitions of dialogue and deliberation posted on the NCDD website. Feedback (good or bad) is welcomed – ncdd@thataway.org.

A typical dictionary definition of dialogue might explain that dialogue is 'a conversation between two or more people,' or that it is 'an exchange of ideas or opinions.' A dictionary typically describes deliberation as 'thoughtfulness in decision or action' or 'discussion and consideration of all sides of an issue.'

Someone who works with these processes of public talk might explain that dialogue is a process that allows people, usually in small groups, to share their perspectives and experiences with one another about difficult issues. Dialogue is not about judging, weighing or making decisions, 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.

They might then explain that deliberation is a related process with a different emphasis. Deliberation promotes the use of critical reasoning and logical argument in decision-making. Instead of decision-making by power, coercion or hierarchy, deliberative decision-making emphasizes the examination of facts and arguments and the weighing of pros and cons of various options.

According to political scientist Iris Marion Young, the '… norms of deliberation are culturally specific and often operate as forms of power that silence or devalue the speech of some people,' noting that predominant 'norms of 'articulateness' … are culturally specific, and in actual speaking situations … exhibiting such speaking styles is a sign of social privilege.' (From 'Communication and the Other: Beyond Deliberative Democracy.' In Democracy and Difference. ed. Behabib, S. Princeton: Princeton University , 1996.)

Preceding deliberation with dialogue – and retaining many of the principles of dialogue throughout the deliberation process – can help ensure that everyone is able to participate fully and safely. Establishing ground rules, emphasizing the importance of listening, utilizing trained facilitators, encouraging storytelling and reflection on personal experiences and perspectives are all dialogue techniques that can help ensure that everyone at the table has a real voice.

Dialogue lays the ground for the vital work of deliberation. The trust, mutual understanding and relationships that are built during dialogue allow for participants to deliberate more effectively, and to make better decisions.

Many questions still need to be answered, though. Are there certain circumstances in which dialogue is less necessary, or even inappropriate? If people have an equal understanding of an issue, and already have good, trusting relationships, is dialogue unnecessary? If the issue is not personally important to those involved, should they go right into deliberation? If a decision needs to be made immediately, can dialogue be passed up? How often does dialogue lead to deliberation? How effective is dialogue that leads to action without deliberation? These are all questions that need to be explored further.

Sandy Heierbacher – National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD)

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