Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world.

 This is the first of several posts exploring ways to develop successful deliberative processes and events in your community. The material in this post is adapted from resources available on the website of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.

Doorways into Deliberation

Dozens of effective public engagement methods have been developed to enable citizens to have authentic, civil, and productive encounters, including at public meetings. They all share a key feature: they involve people gathering to discuss, dialogue, and deliberate over social and political issues. When done well, these methods create a space in which everyone who shows up can tell their story and share their perspective on the topic at hand. Dialogue builds trust and enables people to be open to listening to perspectives that are very different from their own. Deliberation is key to public engagement work as well, enabling people to discuss the consequences, costs, and trade-offs of various policy options, and to work through the emotions that tough public decisions raise.

Public engagement events can take place in a wide variety of settings and over varying scales, from living-room conversations among a few neighbors to multi-day events involving hundreds of participants. At the smaller-scale and less formal end of the spectrum are methods like Conversation Café (see below), which involve only a few participants and generally are meant to be exploratory in nature. At the other end are formal procedures used by governments to gather input from citizens to inform public policy and shape legislation, as in the Austrian province of Vorarlberg (a future post will profile that effort).

Almost all dialogue and deliberation techniques involve some common features: designating facilitators and setting ground rules to create a safe atmosphere for honest, productive discussion; framing the topic, questions, and discussion material in a balanced and accurate manner; and having citizens and decision-makers on all sides of the issue talk to each other face to face in small groups using the input and outcomes generated to inform the decision-making process. These engagement techniques strengthen the traditionally distant relationship between citizens and government, mitigate conflict between groups, improve the quality of and buy-in for public decisions, and tap into community assets and citizen potential. (Events can also be productive when carried out online, as they increasingly are these days. See NCDD’s Tools for Online Engagement page for more information.)

NCDD’s popular Engagement Streams Framework helps people navigate the range of dialogue and deliberation approaches available to them. Developed in 2005 and honed since, the streams framework is designed to help you decide which types of approaches are the best fit for your circumstances. No method works in all situations, though all of these techniques can seem like revelations and appear almost magical to those accustomed to “business as usual” approaches to making decisions and addressing conflicting views. Our goals for this framework are to help you feel more confident in moving forward with your engagement efforts, and to give you a simple, useful tool for teaching others about these approaches.

The Engagement Streams charts below introduce four “streams” or categories based on your primary intention or purpose, and shows which approaches have proven to be effective in each stream.[*] The two charts should be envisioned as a two-page spread (side by side). The entries represent a snapshot of current approaches, but bear in mind that new methods and organizations emerge all the time. Conversely, organizations sometimes close down, go inactive, or reinvent themselves.

Below are brief descriptions of some of the methods and approaches identified in the chart. They vary in complexity and the degree of preparation required. Methods offered by such groups as Living Room Conversations and Conversation Café, for instance, are simpler to use and more appropriate for a do-it-yourself approach than the others, most of which typically involve greater commitment and possibly institutional support.

21st Century Town Meetings bring together a large number of people, organize them into small discussion groups, and use technology to quickly summarize citizen input. Developed in 1995 by AmericaSpeaks (which closed in early 2014), this approach updated the traditional public forum by engaging hundreds to thousands of citizens from a broad cross-section of society (sometimes using technology to connect them across multiple locations) in order to give those in leadership positions direct, substantive feedback on policy issues. This approach stood out in its ability to generate media attention and hence increase the accountability of decision-makers.

Appreciative Inquiry is a change method that encourages stakeholders to explore the best of the past and present in their organizations and communities. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.

Bohmian Dialogue, created by late physicist David Bohm, is focused on attending to and discussing individual internal dynamics—assumptions, beliefs, motivations, etc. The idea is not to eliminate them, but to surface them in the conversation in a way that furthers the dialogue.

Braver Angels seeks to address political polarization and rebuild civic trust in the United States by sponsoring debates, workshops, and conversations using a mode of interaction that stresses stating views freely and fully, seeking opportunities to engage those who disagree with us and treating them with honesty and respect, disagreeing accurately (avoiding exaggeration and stereotypes), and looking for common ground. The work is carried on by citizen volunteers with support from professional staff.

A charrette is a collaborative and consensus-building design methodology that incorporates input from all stakeholders (the developer, relevant government agencies, and the community). A charrette team of experts uses stakeholder input in a continual feedback loop to prepare and refine a plan for development with the goal of reaching consensus among stakeholders. Charrettes, which combine modern design studio and town meeting, help overcome inertia and create meaningful master plans.

The Citizens Jury process is a method for gathering a microcosm of the public, having them attend five days of hearings, deliberate among themselves and then issue findings and recommendations on the issue they have discussed.

In Compassionate Listening, listeners use reflection and skilled inquiry to help speakers deepen their own understanding and awareness. CL engenders generative listening which is non-judgmental, questions that are non-adversarial, and an ability to remain open when witnessing strong feelings and divergent viewpoints. The process can helps create the safety necessary for honest, respectful dialogue and sustainable solutions.

Developed in Denmark, Consensus Conferences typically involve a group of citizens with varied backgrounds who meet to discuss issues of a scientific or technical nature. Each conference has two stages: the first involves small group meetings with experts to discuss the issues and work towards consensus. The second stage assembles experts, media, and the public where the conference’s main observations and conclusions are presented.

 Conversation Cafés are hosted conversations which are usually held in public settings, like coffee shops or bookstores, where anyone is welcome to join. A simple, straightforward format is used that helps people feel at ease and gives everyone who wants it a chance to speak about the topic at hand. The goal is to simply get people talking to strangers, safely and openly, about contentious issues we tend to avoid discussing publicly.

Deliberative Polling combines deliberation in small group discussions with scientific random sampling to provide public consultation for public policy and for electoral issues. Members of a random sample are polled, and then some members are invited to gather at a single place to discuss the issues after they have examined balanced briefing materials. Participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators.

Future Search is a unique planning method which enables large, diverse groups to validate a common mission, take responsibility for action, and develop commitment to implementation. The method, which allows the entire group to be in dialogue when necessary, is especially useful in uncertain, fast-changing situations when it is important that everyone have the same large picture in order to act responsibly.

Intergroup Dialogues are face-to-face meetings of people from at least two different social identity groups. They are designed to offer an open and inclusive space where participants can foster a deeper understanding of diversity and justice issues through participation in experiential activities, individual and small group reflections, and dialogues.

Living Room Conversations works to heal society by connecting people across divides—politics, age, gender, race, nationality, and more—through guided conversations proven to build understanding and transform communities. It uses a conversational model developed by dialogue experts to facilitate connection between people despite their differences, and to identify areas of common ground and shared understanding.

National Issues Forums offer citizens the opportunity to join together to deliberate, to make choices with others about ways to approach difficult issues and to work toward creating reasoned public judgment. NIF is known for its careful issue framing and quality issue guides which outline three or four different viewpoints.

Open Space Technology is a self-organizing practice that invites people to take responsibility for what they care about. In Open Space, a marketplace of inquiry is created where people offer topics they are passionate about and reflect and learn from one another. It is an innovative approach to creating whole systems change and inspiring creativity and leadership among participants.

Reflective Structured Dialogue, a process developed by Essential Partners (formerly Public Conversations Project) helps people with fundamental disagreements over divisive issues develop the mutual understanding and trust essential for strong communities and positive action. Their dialogue model is characterized by a careful preparatory phase in which all stakeholders/sides are interviewed and prepared for the dialogue process.

Socrates Cafés and other forms of Socratic Dialogue encourage groups inside and outside the classroom to engage in robust philosophical inquiry. The Cafés consist of spontaneous yet rigorous dialogue that inspires people to articulate and discover their unique philosophical perspectives and worldview. They don’t force consensus or closure, but are open-ended and can be considered a success if there are more questions at the end than there were at the outset.

Study Circles enable communities to strengthen their own ability to solve problems by bringing large numbers of people together in dialogue across divides of race, income, age, and political viewpoints. Study Circles combine dialogue, deliberation, and community organizing techniques, enabling public talk to build understanding, explore a range of solutions, and serve as a catalyst for social, political, and policy change.

Sustained Dialogue is a process for transforming and building the relationships that are essential to democratic political and economic practice. SD is not a problem-solving workshop; it is a sustained interaction to transform and build relationships among members of deeply conflicted groups so that they may effectively deal with practical problems. As a process that develops over time through a sequence of meetings, SD seems to move through a series of recognizable phases including a deliberative “scenario-building” stage and an “acting together” stage.

Victim Offender Mediation is a restorative justice process that allows the victim of a crime and the person who committed that crime to talk to each other about what happened, the effects of the crime on their lives, and their feelings about it. They may choose to create a mutually agreeable plan to repair any damages that occurred as a result of the crime. In some practices, the victim and the offender are joined by family and community members or others.

A Wisdom Circle is a small group dialogue designed to encourage people to listen and speak from the heart in a spirit of inquiry. By opening and closing the circle with a simple ritual of the group’s choosing, using a talking object, and welcoming silence, a safe space is created where participants can be trusting, authentic, caring, and open to change. Also referred to as Council process and Listening Circles.

Wisdom Councils are microcosms of larger systems like cities and organizations that engage in a creative, thoughtful exploration of the issues affecting the system. A specialized facilitation process is used called “Dynamic Facilitation”—a nonlinear approach for addressing complex issues that allows shared insights and aligned action to emerge. The outcomes of the Wisdom Council, which are reported back to the community, can catalyze further dialogue, self-organizing action, and change throughout the larger system.

For more on Dynamic Facilitation:

World Cafés enable groups of people to participate together in evolving rounds of dialogue with three or four others while at the same time remaining part of a single, larger, connected  conversation. Small, intimate conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into questions or issues that really matter in their lives, work, or communities.

Advice on Launching an Event

Getting an event going can be relatively simple or quite complex, depending on which process is appropriate and the scale of the event. But some broad guidelines apply to most:

  1. Create a diverse planning team

Involve respected leaders (including unofficial leaders) in the communities/groups involved with the issue. Focus on those whose voices are not usually heard, but also include those in traditional power positions (such as police officers and elected officials).

  1. Determine what resources you have and need

Consider: What financial, human, structural, and organizational resources does your community have? Which of these are available to you? What resources exist within the planning team? Think about resources in terms of the planning phase, the actual dialogue process, and the follow-up (action) phase. Given what’s available, what do you still need?​

  1. Be clear about your intent

What are your goals for the program?  Are you doing this to resolve a conflict? To influence policy? To empower community members to take action together? To build relationships among participants or local organizations?  To increase knowledge or deepen awareness of an issue within your community or organization?  Something else? A combination of these?  Be clear on your intent so you can design the program accordingly. (The “Goals of Dialogue & Deliberation” graphic might help.)​

  1. Design a process, or choose a model or combination of models

Your decision will need to be based on your intent, your resources, and where people are in relation to the issue. Use NCDD’s Engagement Streams Framework (summed up in the chart shown above) to decide which streams to pursue. Then learn more about the processes that are used successfully in those streams and either select one or more models or create your own program based on the attributes of those models that you feel best fit your context.

  1. Frame the issue

Figure out how to talk about the issue in as unbiased a way as possible (remember – you want to attract, not turn away, people from all ethnic, educational, and political backgrounds). To make sure every perspective is acknowledged and considered, you may want to prepare materials that fairly represent those perspectives. (See the Kettering Foundation’s “naming and framing” paper for guidance with this step.)

  1. Recruit and train facilitators

The amount and intensity of training depends on the process you are using. Facilitators should represent the people and issues involved fairly well (a dialogue on race relations should utilize a balanced number of white and non-white facilitators, for example).​ Training does not need to be expensive; certain conversation models, such as Conversation Café and Living Room Conversations, have guides and materials to help anyone learn to lead these conversations.

  1. Recruit a representative group to participate

Here’s where your diverse planning team can really make things happen. Focus on marginalized groups such as immigrants, youth, elderly, and low-income people, since these will be the most difficult to get in the door. Tailor your outreach to each group’s needs and concerns. Alternatively, you could use a random sample of citizens and allow a smaller group to represent the whole community. See Democracy Rising 6, on inclusion, for additional thoughts.

  1. Involve those with decision-making power

Dialogue and deliberation emphasize “power-with” principles instead of the typical “power-over” norms in practice today. If your intent is to empower your participants to influence policy or take actions themselves, the absence of those who hold power related to the issue at hand is a major detriment. Get the power-holders on board as planners, participants, sponsors, or supporters.​ See Democracy Rising 8 for additional information and guidance.

  1. Inform the press and community

​Get the word out as widely as possible, emphasizing the unbiased, inclusive nature of the process. You may also want to get members of the press signed on as participants or observers.

  1. Convene the event

​Steps vary depending on the process and other factors, but usually include establishing ground rules, giving every participant the chance to speak, helping participants connect personal experiences with public issues, exploring a range of views, and discussing action steps or recommendations. See Democracy Rising 7, 9, and 10 for more information.

  1. Follow Up

​Evaluate the process. What went well? What could be improved next time? What exactly were the outcomes? Also, publicize the results of the process, or let people know this is ongoing and how they can join in. If there are action steps, follow up. Make sure those who are spearheading initiatives or further dialogue are supported; make sure decision-makers who agreed to listen to the results are held accountable. See NCDD’s collection of assessment tools for more information.

Linking to Your Community

​One of the most important things to consider when initiating a public dialogue or deliberation effort is how it will or can fit into a community’s ongoing civic engagement efforts. (“Civic engagement” refers to all types of involvement in public life and activities, from voting to volunteering in the community.) Dialogue and deliberation are powerful forms of civic engagement that motivate participants to stay more informed on issues of public concern and make people feel more connected to their community. They also help people feel more connected to those whose views and experiences are very different from their own. Isolated dialogue and deliberation processes can make an impact, but are most effective when they are part of a larger civic engagement effort.

How can you ensure this is part of a larger effort to engage citizens and build civic capacity in your community, rather than a one-time intervention? In order to strengthen your community for the long haul, you should consider how this effort can connect to and foster other efforts to get people thinking together and working together for the good of the entire community.

Do some research to determine where the community (or organization, region, nation, etc.) is in relation to the topic at hand, and where it is in terms of civic engagement in general. Are community groups already trying to address this issue? Are others considering dialogue as a way to resolve this conflict? Are there community groups or leaders who have supported dialogue and deliberation in the past? Make sure they’re involved, and that your project strengthens their efforts. Don’t forget that local institutions, such as libraries, community organizations, museums, and more, have served in these roles and may be natural partners for these efforts.


[*]Sandy Heierbacher, NCDD’s co-founder and first director, initially developed this resource to help inform workshops she presented on selecting dialogue and deliberation techniques, at a time when there was little clarity about the differences between approaches. The framework was informed by a number of previous efforts to make sense of the emerging fields of public engagement, conflict resolution, and organizational development. Many of the scholars and practitioners whose work was utilized to develop this framework—including Patricia Wilson, Tom Atlee, Archon Fung, Matt Leighninger, Hal Saunders, and Barnett Pearce—provided ongoing feedback as the framework took shape. The streams framework has since been featured in many articles, books, conference workshops, community presentations, and talks, and we welcome you to use it however you see fit.