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The Lexicon of Dialogue and Deliberation

The following comments were made over the NCDD Discussion list a few years ago when Leah Lamb posed this question: “I have been pondering about how we can actively make the D&D lexicon more familiar to the greater public? I am curious to learn about how those of you on the listserv approach describing the fields of D&D, and more specifically, how you address the complexity of the wide range of definitions and practice.”

Here are some of the great responses in his thread:

I just use the term ‘dialogue’ which seems to communicate universally.

I don’t use the ‘and deliberation’ at all, as it seems to not communicate to all kinds of folks (both English and non-English-speaking, from academic and non-academic cultures, and so on).

When I introduce myself I say I am a ‘facilitator and are you familiar with that job title?’ – and if someone is not, I say something like ‘we are the people who help groups communicate for mutual understanding or more efficient task work, bringing people together to pool their knowledge and experience across disciplines, organizational roles and cultures’.

I don’t talk methods or practices when I first talk with potential clients (unless they contact me for a specific method they’ve experienced such as Open Space”) – instead I talk about their need, their hoped-for objectives, and some deliverables that might be possible. Later we can get into the whole ‘here’s a method I’m thinking of using’ conversation. I find that so many people don’t really want to talk about method and process at first but instead want to hear the stories of situations like theirs and about what has worked.

I’m interested in hearing what others do,

Lisa Heft

I too find that talking about specific processes or names can be confusing and sometimes can feel irrelevant to people. At the same time, I think it is important (if we think we have something unique to offer) to actually use the terms of of practice. I guess I think part of our job is to give people words that relate to an experience, so they can try out the words. I also think that it is better to describe what the goals and process and outcomes are, rather than use a bunch of jargon.

I talk about dialogue as being “a way to share our experiences, listen to other people’s stories, and have a deeper conversation about things that really matter.” We can all remember having lots of superficial conversations (because of fear, or annoyance, or uncertainty etc.) – and most of us, i suspect, have also been a part of a conversation or dialogue that really got to the things that mattered to us. Calling on those experiences seems helpful to me.

Katie Howard

I say something like, “Ways to bring large groups of highly diverse people together to produce effective results.” I try to avoid jargon or names of methodologies and rather describe what we can accomplish.

Kenoli Oleari

Just one tiny comment: In one of the many messages that have flown back and forth through the list these past 2 days, I saw the statement from Lisa–“I just use the term ‘dialogue’ which seems to communicate universally. ”

My experience is that, like any word that we feel communicates universally, everyone has their own, unique understanding of what dialogue is, and even within our community of practitioners, there are many understandings of what dialogue is, what it is not, what it is and is not useful for, when we are “in dialogue” and when we are not, and so on.

I believe we have come to use the word “dialogue” in so many different ways and settings and contexts, that it has lost its meaning and become a fuzzy, feel-good word for us and possibly obscure for others. I wonder if it ever had the kind of crisp definition that we think would help those outside our field understand what we mean when we use it, and I applaud any efforts to clarify the terminology that we use among ourselves.

I hope if we do find ways to differentiate between and among all the words we use, we can attach them to combinations of outcomes and processes, that we can anchor our definitions in ways that can stand up to some “visual inspection” or experiential distinction.

Helen Spector
Spector & Associates
Organizational Process Consulting

I say something like the following, depending on the situation. (See also #4 below.)

There are many new ways of talking and working together that we are beginning to figure out that really do work to bring people together that you would never imagine could even talk to each other let alone reach agreements on important issues.. For example, in regions where developers and environmentalists are at each other’s throats, or conservatives and liberals are pointing fingers, we have found that using these techniques, people are able to come to unexpected solutions that meet everyone’s needs. I know of a community in Oakland that was so dangerous even fire trucks would not go into it without a police escort. Some police and community leaders got training in one of these techniques and spread it thru their community in a relatively short tiem. In five years, now, they haven’t had a single homicide.”


That’s one of the reasons NCDD is now writing a short “Toolkit” to introduce key concepts to the general public, using language that will reach them.

Along with this, however, as I see it, we actually have a couple of different jobs (though the rest of this may go well beyond what you asked, I think.)

(1) One, fundamental to all the others, is to develop tight, precise, reasonably consistent terms to use among “professionals”, researchers, etc. that, in effect, define the discipline(s). [See UNDERLYING LOGIC, below]

(2) Given that “Underlying Logic” (as I call it), we can then (or also) find/define “user friendly” terms to convey the basics to those new to the field, or at least new to our way of talking about it. These can be used in the Toolkit and in many places on the NCDD site and at the conferences, and/or at other conferences where we promote these practices. Excerpts from it might help answer the questions your being asked.

(3) For different “Fields of Practice” (or “streams of practice” as Sandy calls them) , people can map their own familiar terms onto this “underlying logic” and/or define equivalencies (“synonyms” that cut across the different fields). These different lexicons would reflect not only differences in labels and emphasis that have grown up in different traditions, but also different contexts of use and different categories of potential users of D&D (e.g. “public officials” vs. “grassroots activists”). We’d map synonyms or equivalences as fully as possible. [Whose “WE”, by the way? Well, given maybe an initial structure, it would be “wiki work” that we all contribute to–or discussions on forums in the different fields.]

(4) Organize the knowledge, and language, more around what kinds of problems and situations this is good for,than around the tools or methods themselves (as other respondents to this email have in effect suggested. I look forward to our having the conceptual underpinnings that will make it easier to organize the NCDD website this way as well, around problems/solutions, etc., i.e. “use contexts”.

Someone may not know or care about the differences between a discussion, a dialogue or a deliberation (initially at least), but care a whole lot about “participatory democracy” or “collaboratiave decision-making”. Or they may just know they’ve got a problem (or a vision): “I want to get the voters in my town involved a lot earlier in solving problems; I want them to understand the hard choices I have to make when there is no money, and get them to help take some responsibility for those decisions” or “I want the elected officials in this town to take us–we the people–seriously!!! Right now our “store” welcomes only professional carpenters looking for “tools”. We need a store that helps the “do it yourselfer” or “someone needing a good contractor” to find what they need also–to see models of what our “constructs” look like in practice, or find the aisle labeled “gardening”, or the “catalogue” that shows our “products and services”–

But cataloguing (or the yellow pages) ALWAYS suffer from this “terminology” problem. They solve it in part by a lot of cross-indexing and “teaching in context” how to look up a needed service.

For what it is worth, there are the tools that “ontologists” working in the software industry use to comb through a lot of documents in a field finding key words and overlaps in meanings. Much money is spent on this exercise, because all software interfaces with users through “words”–and icons (visual metaphors) that simply MUST map to the familiar universe of the users (while also retaining an underlying rigor!)–or else the software is doomed. MAYBE we could get some help from that quarter, though I don’t know yet.

*Anyhow, we can make good use of any answers you’ve got out there. And, if any of you display too much interest taxonomic work–such as having read this long email to this point–look out! We’ll be on the look out for you, asking for help. [Oh, and theres a little more, a P.S., after my name] Oh, and IF ANY OF YOU KNOW OF OTHERS WORKING ON THIS, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. Thanks!

Dr. Nancy Glock-Grueneich
President, HIGHER EDge
3085A Carriker Lane www.higheredge.org
Soquel, CA 95073 831-462-3419

Discussion: definition of terms:

UNDERLYING LOGIC of what we are doing: comprehensive, coherent, and consistent vocabulary. Encompasses all /fields of practice/. Makes essential distinctions and allows us to talk about them for the purposes of theory, research, and knowledge management. It works under the surface.

We need a* glossary *of key terms that constitute the formal discipline (or sub-discipline or inter discipline).


We are in a field that struggles to maintain a balance between our individual and collective emotional and the intellectual halves. We are driven to make a difference in our communities (and thereby the world) by our heart and so we “just want to get busy”


I like the intention idea brought in by Sam. AND all of the comments regarding what others say is very interesting. Lisa’s idea of looking for outcomes really resonates.

Some things I say are “tapping into the collective wisdom” of a group; “revealing unspoken thoughts and feelings to come to common understanding in order to move forward with clarity”; “a high quality way to brainstorm, share insights or uncover what has not yet been revealed to a group by having powerful conversation that allows important elements to surface.”

my approach is to get people in the conversation as soon as possible, rather than finding the perfect tool to use.

Leilani Henry

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