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 post is the third of a five-part sub-series augmenting the themes introduced in Democracy Rising 11. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.

 Democracy Rising 14

 Getting Started with Dialogue and Deliberation, Part 3

“Less talk, more action!”

This is a complaint I often hear from citizens. However, talk is action—if it is the right kind of talk. And the right kind of talk involves the actions of careful listening, thoughtful reflection, and non-argumentative sharing of information and ideas. This kind of talk is grounded in the democratic values that support collaborative action for change. This is deliberative dialogue. Failing to talk before making a decision or staking out a position or making a demand is akin to shooting before aiming—you’re less likely to reach your target, and the unintended consequences can be ugly.

Dialogue is different from debate (talking at or past each other), discussion (politely talking around the surface of a topic and avoiding the hard issues), or deliberation (weighing defined options together in order to reach a decision on an identified issue). Dialogue is not a town hall meeting where questions are asked and sometimes answered, and it is not the type of poorly run public meeting that offers “minutes at the mic” with no feedback, and with comments often focused on venting or ranting. I have heard more than one person describe that type of meeting as a “primal scream session.”

What I mean by dialogue is a defined set of communication patterns[1] that build understanding and help people of different backgrounds and experiences openly share their thoughts and work through their differences with mutual respect. In my experience, unlike the public meeting formats discussed above, dialogue generally affirms and energizes the participants, encouraging ongoing engagement. The specific skills needed for dialogue can be both taught and learned, even as the conversation is ongoing.

Dialogue is not a magic bullet. It won’t solve all issues, and you can’t just hold one session and expect a significant change. As you think about how to use dialogue in your community, think about building an ongoing conversation with multiple stages using different types of dialogue formats. Are you just getting to know each other? Then you likely want to start with a very open-ended conversation.[2] Do you have a common concern that needs to be explored? Then you might want to start with a “naming and framing” exercise to identify participants’ various perspectives and experiences.[3] Are you looking to inform and engage on a specific topic? Then maybe a panel discussion followed by small-group dialogue might be the way to go. Is there a substantial issue that has been studied and discussed but where progress has stalled? Then you might want a dialogue that explores the differing perspectives, experiences, and values that underlie the partisan gridlock.

On more complex issues you might want to form working groups who come together to share information and explore options for action. And if you are at the point of deliberation you can use dialogue to confirm and frame the options you will be discussing and the dialogue formats you will use to ensure that the evaluative analysis remains collaborative and doesn’t revert to debate. As explained in the post “Doorways Into Deliberation” (Democracy Rising 11), there are many tools to help you get started. These include the process tools discussed there and below, and also discussion guides on specific topics that can help you get a conversation going.[4]

As noted in Part 1 of this Getting Started sub-series, often the most sustainable change builds gradually. Different types of dialogues can be sequenced and linked so that they all work together to build public understanding of an issue, strengthen relationships, and spark new ideas. For example, one good way to start tackling a particularly complex issue would be with a small group discussion where friends and neighbors could share concerns and brainstorm on who else to involve.[5] This could then be followed by a study group, inviting others who were identified in the initial conversation, that would evaluate and recommend one of the discussion guides to start with. Then you could schedule dialogues using that guide and branch from that to specific dialogues on next steps. At each step you would be building knowledge, embedding dialogue skills, and strengthening your community network. This gradual and phased approach often leads to a more rigorous analysis of an issue than would otherwise have occurred—and more support for the recommendations that may arise out of it.

As you build, I particularly recommend three dialogue structures: The Question Formulation Technique® from The Right Question Institute, Conversation Cafés, and World Cafés. Each of these is very versatile and is supported by free downloadable resources to help you plan and facilitate an effective conversation.[6] These processes work well together to help you build and sustain a community dialogue, from small group discussions to larger community discussions. Although these processes are structured, they also allow for informal conversation and allow participants to shape the nature and direction of the conversation. Most participants like that freedom. Which one you choose to start with will depend on your environment, your issue, and the timing.[7] Below are brief reviews of each, looking at how they work and why or when you might use them.

The Question Formulation Technique (QFT®) is a process in which the participants are prompted to generate questions. They then amend the questions to make sure they are “open questions” that invite discussion, not questions that call for a yes, no, or single-word answer, and then set priorities among the questions. This gets people talking and thinking in a way that makes it hard to fall into hardened positions (especially if reminded that “today we are just generating questions; we will work through them later”).

The QFT® is particularly useful for initiating dialogue among diverse stakeholders who are not used to working together, and for situations in which there has been entrenched conflict. This is because the very nature of the structure disrupts positional debate and instead naturally promotes a focus on understanding and working through the issues.

It is much less threatening for someone to hear a question than to hear an objection, dismissal, or denial of something they just said. It is much less threatening to add a question to a question than to start a debate on something. And it is easier to ask a question than to state a firm position that invites attack. By encouraging interaction through questions, the structure helps to quickly build trust among the participants. As the questions flow, the various components of a complex issue quickly come into view. The questions generated then can be gathered, sequenced, and used as the starting point or guide for future conversations.

A key responsibility of the convener of a QFT® session is choosing a prompt to begin the question formulation process. It can’t be so broad as to be meaningless or so tailored as to limit the discussion. “We are talking about climate change and how it affects our community” is a better prompt than either “climate change” or “how to get more solar power.”

The Conversation Café model actually started as a way to prompt in-depth discussions in cafés around Seattle. I have used it this way—simply sitting down in a coffee shop with a sign that says “Conversation Café happening here” and being joined by several curious people. It is well suited to small groups, guiding them through four rounds of open but structured conversation. A key part of the Conversation Café is that in three of the rounds each person only talks once: no cross talk, no jumping in, no “clarifying questions.” This is very hard for some people, and you (or the table host, if there are multiple tables at your café) will need to remind those who do try to talk more than once about the rule (e.g., “I’m sorry, you have already talked in this round, please make a note and share your question or comment in the next round, because we do want to hear it. Right now it is [name]’s turn to talk”). (You could say that the Conversation Café has five rounds, not four, because you actually start with introductions, an overview of the process, and the “Conversation Agreements” that are reviewed at the outset. These generally take 10 to 15 minutes of your scheduled time.)

A Conversation Café often starts with a very open prompt (e.g., “We’re here talking about community, what are your thoughts?”), although it can be more focused. In each round participants are invited to go deeper and share their thoughts on what was shared in the last round. Because they are fun and engaging, Conversation Cafés can be a good way to recruit new participants into dialogue. And because of the structured rounds (everyone talks once before any one talks twice) Conversation Cafés can prompt very deep, productive discussion in a short period of time.

I have also used the Conversation Café format for large groups, divided into smaller groups of eight or 10, each of which work through the four usual rounds of conversation, and then report out to the larger group.[8] If you are using this process with a large group, each table needs a host who agrees to keep the process on track by giving cues to those who have not yet spoken and by keeping track of key themes. More than once I have used this type of process and had all tables independently narrow the conversation to a single area of focus, which provides a very powerful insight into what needs to be talked about next. For example, a group of students, most of whom did not know each other, attended a Café with the prompt, “As students how do we support each other?” Within an hour, every one of the 10 tables was talking about mental health needs.

Every time I have used the Conversation Café some participants have said something like, “It was so hard not to talk. I thought this structure was kind of hokey but it also really helped me to listen.” And others have said, “I generally don’t talk much at these things but I really liked this process. Knowing no one could jump in when it was my turn really helped me speak up.” Because the four structured rounds promote listening and focus, this structure, like the QFT®, is useful for introducing participants to each other and understanding the range of concerns and perspectives that participants are bringing to the table. It is also a useful structure for exploring a specific topic in combination with a guide or other study material.

The World Café has a more open structure than the Conversation Café and can easily accommodate very large groups. A basic World Café starts with an introduction, three rounds of discussion, and then a closing. As with the QFT®, the choice of prompt is critical to a productive discussion. If you are promoting brainstorming on possible actions, or using a World Café to promote deliberation on competing interests, you would then refract that prompt into three different but complementary lenses. So let’s imagine your school district is growing rapidly. Your prompt might be “Growing Enrollment: How Do We Meet the Need?” And your breakouts could be “Spaces, New and Existing”; “Funding”; and “Student Needs.”[9]

During the course of the World Café, about a third of the participants begin with each of the three different focus areas. At the end of the round they are invited to go to a different area and find new people to sit with. Over the course of the three rounds each participant will discuss each of those three areas at different times and with different people. So as participants circulate through the rounds, they naturally explore tensions between different approaches and cross-pollinate ideas.

There are no ground rules in a World Café. A facilitator or table host explains the process. Written guidelines, which consist of words and phrases like “draw, explore, question, have fun…,” may be put on the tables.[10] Although you can have note-taking forms for the hosts at a World Café, the tables are often set up with large pieces of paper and index cards for participants to draw or write on and then leave behind. When multiple people take the time to write down or comment on a similar theme or idea, that is an indication of how it resonated with the group.

The World Café can be adapted to many different situations and set up in different ways. As indicated above, it is an excellent format for brainstorming, and also (at a separate time) for large group deliberation. I have been to a peace conference that used the World Café and had over 500 people attending (in a big room with lots of tables arranged in three groups), music and poetry reading during breaks, graphic recorders, and multiple ways to interact—yet it still followed the three-round dialogue format that is a hallmark of World Cafés. I have also hosted World Cafés in various regulatory or nonprofit settings that were much more constrained and task oriented, and involved typed worksheets for each of the three rounds. Using the World Café model to plan for an expected audience of about 40 allowed us to flex quickly and accommodate the 100-plus people who actually showed up. We did this by expanding the number of tables in each group and assigning a facilitator to each group who could circulate throughout each round and assist tables as necessary.

The World Café and Conversation Café formats combine easily. Where tensions are high, using the structure of the Conversation Café rounds at each table and within each round can help you focus the discussion and manage conflict. This format works particularly well with deliberative discussions.

What makes the Café structures work so well is the hospitality extended to the individual participants, who often are tense, anxious, and cynical about attending a public meeting. The structures, which allow for both participant engagement (they actually do most of the talking in the meeting) and empowerment (within the framework they are able to choose what to say and how), put participants at ease. I’ve seen this happen in real time: once, when facilitating the first of several planned public meetings on a very contentious issue, my firm persuaded the sponsor to let us set up the room as if it were a café. Each of the tables had a tablecloth, flowers, and refreshments. As people came in and saw this setting, their demeanors visibly changed from anxious to amused and curious. They instantly knew this was not going to be another “town hall.” They asked about the set-up and process and started talking about the decorations and sharing food before we even started the meeting. They then brought that positive energy into the ensuing conversation. Future meetings of the group were much more spartan, but the hospitality effect continued to pay dividends across multiple meetings, all using the hybrid World/Conversation Café format.

One benefit of all three of these structures—the two Cafés and the QFT®is that you don’t need to wait for a professional or expert to convene and manage these dialogues.[11] The formats are clearly spelled out and naturally work to help keep the conversation productive. Although you may want to hire facilitators if the issues are particularly complex and conflict is high, if you start small and choose your structure carefully, in general you will be able to manage the dialogue planning and facilitation by yourself or with volunteers.

Another key benefit of all of the above processes is that they easily fit into two- or four-hour windows. People often avoid public meetings because they are afraid of being drawn into seemingly endless discussion and losing their entire day or evening. Promising that the meeting will not last more than two hours and will be productive—and then delivering on that promise—helps people engage and then stay engaged for the future. Since each of the above formats has a limited number of rounds, you can set the time (e.g., “We will talk for 20 minutes in this round.”). These time limits are also helpful for managing participants who are rambling or unfocused (e.g., “Since we want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to talk, try to plan for [x] minutes for your initial remarks and if we need to move on to someone else I will give you this ’wrap-up signal’—and know that you will again have the opportunity to speak in the next round and/or make notes on the table cards.”) Another added benefit for working parents or others who can only stay for part of the meeting is that they can easily slip in or out between rounds.

Sequencing a series of dialogues in this way has many advantages over scheduling longer meetings. As Susan Clark mentioned in Democracy Rising 7:

Rather than thinking about “solving” wicked problems, we need to think about managing them—naming the competing values, authentically exploring trade-offs, and doing the hard work together to find the best balance in each case. Colorado State University Professor Martín Carcasson explains that most problem-solving models focus either on expertise or on activism. But wicked problems are inherently different. They don’t respond to technical solutions, nor do they respond to advocacy. What they do respond to is slow, trusting, face-to-face communication.

Note that naming values, exploring trade-offs, and deliberating on what makes for the best balance are all different stages of dialogue.

As people come together and discussions are productive, fears and tensions naturally ease, and participants are often then eager to join the next conversation. And if you start with exploratory dialogues, you will often find that the presenting problem or issue that people are engaging around is not the sole or even the most significant point of difference. So spacing out your dialogue meetings, and starting with something like the QFT® or a brainstorming World Café will help you to analyze the needs of the participants and decide what type of process might better support them in future meetings. You might consider the following questions as you analyze those needs: Are there gaps in information as well as differing interests? When defining interests, are participants looking at the same time periods or outcomes? Does the language used by each party suggest a clash of values or something else, like fear of argument? Are they talking about the same things, or is more focus needed on definitions and details about the area of concern? (Note that arguments over broad issues like “justice” and “fairness” often reveal structural issues of notice, procedure, compliance, or legal boundaries that may not be clearly identified.) You can also analyze participant interactions at three levels of discussion: (1) how they view themselves and each other (trust/identity), (2) what feelings are present (emotion), and (3) what data and experiences each has had or viewed (information). Issues that involve questions of trust or identity are the hardest to navigate, and simple informational differences are the easiest. People will often be at different levels on different issues.[12]

Regardless of what type of process I am using for a particular dialogue, I close it out with a review of what was discussed and an acknowledgment that talking in this way is hard work–but that it makes a difference. I then thank them for that hard work. Because people are hungry for solutions and primed to ask, “When are we going to stop talking and do something?,” it is helpful to remind people in this way that talking and listening are both actions, and necessary ones for building consensus and choosing wisely. And if you can emphasize the connections made among people, issues, and resources during the dialogue, and tell people when and where to show up next, you can continue to build your dialogue step by step as additional progress is made. How to link your steps will be discussed in the next post.

[1] You can download a listing of dialogue skills on my firm’s blog. This also can be a useful handout to orient others to dialogue and how it differs from debate. For further reading on what dialogue is and the skills needed for it, I highly recommend Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (Touchstone, 2001).

[2] A simple open-ended conversation—one that opens with questions like, “What are your thoughts about our neighborhood/schools/community?” or “What might we do to better support our youth?”—is also a place to start when you need to do remedial work in building trust between different individuals or groups. Note the neutral or positive framing of the question, and the avoidance of phrasing that may be tied to a particular political view or solution (e.g., “How would you address the climate change that is happening?” or “How do we stop youth violence?”).

[3] See the Kettering Foundation guide, Naming and Framing to Make Sound Decisions (2011), and the related report by David Mathews (2016).

[4] See examples of guides or other resources on current issues at the following sites (note this is not a complete list!): National Issues Forum, Living Room Conversations, The Right Question Institute, U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (not an agency – a collective of artists and communities working for empathy, equity, and belonging), the NAACP, or Everyday Democracy. You can start a dialogue simply by sharing a guide and inviting people to review and discuss it with you. If you can’t find a guide to help jump start a dialogue, you can always try making your own using the Naming and Framing guide cited in note 3 above, or simply use a collection of articles that you ask people to add to. Make sure that collection represents a range of views!

[5] See a sample “Neighbor2Neighbor” checklist here.

[6]Listening Circles” are also a good starting point for particularly emotional issues where personal experiences will be shared. This is a highly structured process focused, as the name suggests, on listening and doing so in an emotionally supportive way. The structure promotes personal sharing and reflective listening, with no judgment or debate. It can frustrate those who are looking for more interaction, so managing participant expectations and ensuring the process is followed are both important to using this successfully. I have used it, though, on topics relating to religion and race, and well as to other community divides, and participants often say they find it healing and moving. See also Empathy Circles.

[7] In Democracy Rising 8, Susan Clark shared an example of such an assessment: “In Portland, Oregon, the parks and recreation department begins every project with a public-involvement assessment to evaluate public impact, public interest, and controversy. Planners then match the participation need with the appropriate tool. Staff have welcomed the clarity and strategic value of the system.” You can download some guidelines for planning dialogue here. And this article, which first appeared in the Missouri Municipal Review,illustrates why you might choose different types of dialogue as issues are discussed within your community.

[8] See more details on the Conversation Café rounds in this hosting guide.

[9] Look at the assets from your environmental scan (see Democracy Rising 13) and consider using an “Appreciative Inquiry” approach to at least one prompt (Appreciative Inquiry focuses on the question of “what is going well and how can we get more of it.”). Such a starting point also helps to disrupt both premature solution-based narratives (“What we have to do is…”) and position-based narratives that are based on grievances.

[10] You may though want to discuss confidentiality—in the form of a simple agreement not to attach individual names to comments outside of the meeting—because many people in our polarized environments are afraid of being quoted out of context or of having their name attached to a particular view.

[11] There is a “facilitation cycle” that all dialogues have in common which, when attended to, helps build energy and sustain people’s interest in dialogue. My firm’s e-book Understanding the Facilitation Cycle walks you through each part of that cycle and the questions to think about both as you prepare and as you work through your dialogue. This was written after one nonprofit told us, “We are constantly asked to convene dialogues and we have no idea what we are doing.” So what they did was convene people but limit the dialogue so as to avoid conflict. This was frustrating to all involved. Our e-book will help you promote rather than avoid dialogue even if you are new to the field.

[12]Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin Books, 2010).


Teaser photo credit: By Constitution_Pg1of4_AC.jpg: Constitutional Conventionderivative work: Bluszczokrzew (talk) – Constitution_Pg1of4_AC.jpg, Public Domain,