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 last of five posts in a 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 16

Getting Started with Dialogue and Deliberation, Part 5

We live in an increasingly polarized and partisan world.

As you work to create deliberative dialogues, you will face many challenges. This post looks at two of those: getting people to show up, and ensuring that participation is productive. Although these challenges are different, they are interrelated. Many people have not had a positive experience with community dialogue (especially on difficult issues) and many are averse to conflict or feel ill-equipped to navigate it. These factors often lie behind both avoidant and aggressive behaviors that can impede your efforts. Below are several strategies that can help.

Getting People to Show Up

As with any ailment, sound diagnosis is important in choosing an appropriate course of action. When people aren’t engaging with you, review the following as you diagnose where your efforts might be falling short.

First, look at how you are inviting people in. You may be nominally “inviting them in” while “unintentionally disinviting” them. There are at least two kinds of unintentional disinvites: one that reflects poor “naming and framing” of the issue[1], and one that reflects scheduling at your own convenience rather than that of your intended participants.

Let’s look at poor naming and framing, using the issue of climate change. If you invite people to a meeting to discuss “how to get to zero emissions by x year” or even “what do we do about climate change,” you are unlikely to be joined by those who have questions about climate change and its effects, and certainly not by skeptics. Yet those two groups might join if the invitation was to a discussion on “making our community more resilient to storms” or “building a future where our children can thrive.” With that kind of invitation, you would also be providing a slightly more open form of discussion that allows a range of information to be brought in on inter-related issues.

Invitations that reflect an intention to advocate for a position or other prejudgement as to the desired outcome are in some ways like a childhood birthday party invitation that comes in the form of, “My mother said I had to invite everyone in the class. I know my crowd is coming and you can join if you want to but we may not be doing things you would enjoy.” People know when their points of view aren’t really wanted, and won’t go where they believe they are unwelcome unless, as is discussed further below, they go to disrupt.

Even when the effort to engage and work with others is sincere and well framed, you can unintentionally disinvite others by failing to think through schedules, communication channels, and other practical realities.[2] These failures include such things as scheduling public input on school issues at times when most parents can’t attend, using information channels that reach only a small group, choosing meeting places not accessible by public transit, failure to provide childcare when trying to reach families or to offer food when scheduling in the evening, or using a location like a church or chamber of commerce office where key stakeholders might be uncomfortable.

Another reason people don’t attend dialogue events is because they are overwhelmed with the demands of daily life and distracted by the many other options they have for spending their time. And as mentioned above, many have not had good experiences with public meetings and so don’t think engaging is worth their time compared to other claims or options. As Susan Clark said in Democracy Rising 8, “people are willing to engage with difficult issues if they trust that through a fair process, they can make a real difference.” And if they don’t, they won’t.

And still another reason people don’t attend dialogue events is because they fear conflict. Many times a request for community input on an issue is analogous to inviting a group to “play ball” without specifying whether you are talking about baseball, basketball, football, or rugby. When people show up, they do so with a variety of equipment, skills, and expectations about what is fair and foul. Collisions, injuries, and high emotions are inevitable. Play may not advance. This is often how people have experienced public engagement. Conflict is uncomfortable and takes emotional energy, it can disrupt relationships and reputations, and many doubt their skills for navigating it.[3] Why, they ask, get involved if there is no clear reason to subject yourself to all that?

There are a number of relatively simple strategies that you can use to mitigate these factors and encourage people to engage in a deliberative dialogue. As suggested above, an important strategy is a good invitation, one that is inclusive (having a broader framing) and one that is welcoming (“your thoughts and experiences are needed”).

Your invitation also should provide some information on the process that can address the fear of conflict and the fear that it will all just be a waste of time. Will you have a facilitator present? Then say so. Or will you be using an interactive structure like the World Café or other small-group conversation format? If so, say that—and in terms people understand. An invitation to “show up, meet your neighbors, and share your thoughts on this topic in a small group dialogues format” lets potential participants know this is not a three-minute-at-the-mic format or a “primal scream session” or a “forum” where they will just be talked at.

And rather than asking people to come to you, consider going to them. This strategy helps address both the crush of day-to-day life and the fear of conflict. You would do this using multiple linked dialogues at different locations, as discussed in Parts 3 and 4 of this Democracy Rising sub-series. This strategy works even better if you couple the dialogue with practical care for people’s needs. You can provide lunch after a church service or dinner at a community center followed by dialogue (with child care). You can invite people through school newsletters and schedule dialogues in conjunction with back-to-school nights. You can link online and in-person options, and also provide study guides and other materials that people can take and use in their own communities, and then report back on. Libraries can also be great partners in deliberative dialogue. If you are using this type of “go where they are” approach you must have a consistent way of gathering and sharing information on where dialogue is occurring and what is being said.

And you can further encourage interest by providing rewards in the form of tangible items or experiences. The best tangible rewards are things that meet practical needs, like holding a raffle for gas or grocery cards at the end of each dialogue. (You can sometimes get these for free as a donation from a local store that is then designated as a sponsor.) You can also tap into the fact that people like to have fun. I have scheduled local bands to play for free before or after an event. They like the exposure and the music gives people another reason to show up. Screenings of relevant movies (mostly documentaries, many of which are available at your library or through interlibrary loan) can also be a great way to invite people into dialogue (note that popcorn is a good addition). And people also like contests and public recognitions. So if it works in your community, have a barbecue contest in conjunction with your dialogue, or give a series of related “community leadership” or “thought innovator” awards, all of which can be promoted on a range of media, coupled with an invitation to the next meeting or process.

To keep people coming back to additional engagements, tell them what resulted from the last round of dialogue, why it mattered, and why their participation is needed to keep the momentum going. That again tells them, “This really is worth your while.”

Encouraging Productive Participation

To have a meaningful dialogue, participants must be comfortable enough to speak up honestly and listen to others. Fear, anger, distrust, and not understanding the process are all things that make it difficult to honestly share and to listen. So you need to gently set expectations and support participants through the conversation.

  • Managing Expectations

How do you set expectations? I practice what I like to refer to as the “hospitality model” of facilitation: you genuinely welcome all participants, orient them, and support them. Think of guests you’ve invited to dinner. How do you greet them when they come in? I hope warmly and with some direction of where to go and what to do. So it is with a dialogue. Especially when people are coming to an unfamiliar building, have greeters at the door and in the room telling people they are welcome, where to put their coats, and where they might sit. Have a short handout with a positive overview and timeline of the process.

When you get started, greet them again and thank them for coming. Acknowledge they have other things to do, and tell them why their participation is valued. Invite them to introduce themselves to those they are sitting near, or provide some other short interactive opportunity.

You can establish expectations without dictating ground rules, simply by explaining how you are proceeding and why dialogue is different than what they may have encountered in the past. For example, you might say something like, “We are here tonight because we are one community and it’s important that we listen to and get to know each other.” (The use of “we” in your intro helps establish a sense of responsibility to the group). I like to highlight the importance of “listening as we support each other through this conversation.” I might ask, “How many of you like to be really heard?” Usually all hands go up. “What helps you feel heard? Think about that for a minute and I will ask three to five volunteers to share.” Typically you will get responses like “no interruptions,” or “they tell me what they understood me to say.” This allows you to review reflective listening skills by saying something like, “Yes, it helps to have the attention of others when you’re sharing your thoughts, and to have those reflected in a way where you know you were heard, and not just dismissed.” And you can share some examples and invite the group to “let’s all try to listen like that today.”

Sometimes I will say, “What is listening? It’s not as some of us do, watching for the moment when you can interrupt and get a word in edgewise. Nor is it gathering words or phrases you can harvest and weaponize.” Then I provide examples and people laugh because they have been in those conversations.[4] Then you might ask, “So what are we listening for?” And whether or not you receive responses to that question, you can say something like, “We have all had different experiences, we consume different information, there are a number of values like freedom and safety that are in tension here, and even our interests might look different depending on the perspective we have. For example, some may be concerned about an immediate loss and others about the longer-term effects. This is a difficult topic and thinking about all of the pieces will help us move forward.” This summary will of course vary depending on the topic, but it helps cue people for listening to what might lie behind the different positions that might be offered.

If I know there has been conflict in the group or in the community, I might share the following quote on a slide as we talk about listening: “By listening attentively, we can take in the experiences of others without necessarily agreeing with what they are advocating.”[5] This is because many people have learned to channel their fear or anger related to an issue or an idea into a best-defense-is-a-good-offense response that shuts down dialogue. I may go on to refer to “behaviors we have all learned and see regularly in the media,” and review the “Dangerous Ds”—Deflection, Distortion, Dismissal, Demeaning, Denial, and Derision—providing a brief example of each. Then I invite the group, “When you hear this or are tempted to respond in this way, stop and ask ’What is being avoided? What am I not hearing?’ and then try a new approach.”

I will also tell participants that if I hear something that is taking us off course from our dialogue I will intervene to help all be heard, and I will provide some examples of what that might look like, e.g., “If I think you are talking past each other I may stop and reflect on what I have been hearing, so we can more clearly identify the different perspectives being shared as we explore them.” Or I might say, “I think one of the Dangerous Ds is in play. Let’s backtrack and review.”

An important part of ensuring your participants’ safety and the trust in your dialogues is to ensure no participant is surprised by their comments subsequently appearing in social media or the press. So I will say something like, “As we discuss and get new information it’s likely that our ideas or how we would express them may change. So I ask all of you to agree not to quote anyone in this discussion by name without getting their agreement first. Is that agreeable to all? Please show me by raising your hand.” If there are journalists in the room—and often there will be if your dialogue has been publicized widely—I will talk to them beforehand about this same expectation, and then ask them to identify themselves at the outset, note that they have agreed to respect the process and not to quote anyone without their permission, and that we are glad they are there because of the valuable role the press plays in our democracy.

Setting expectations in this way makes it easier when you encounter disruptive behaviors in your dialogue to gently intervene and redirect so that the process is respected.

  • Managing Disruptions

Even participants who do not mean to be disruptive may still be so. This is particularly true when strong emotions are present, the participants lack conflict resolution skills, they are impatient and trying to “move things along,” they are reactive to real or perceived slights from others who they dislike or distrust, or they have very different information sources and view contrary information as untrustworthy and threatening.

If you want to keep them talking, you need to support them through awkward moments and put them at ease. And you need to do this in ways that don’t make the unintentionally disruptive individuals feel personally dismissed or judged, and the overall group feels respected and their expectations for productive dialogue are reinforced. This requires responding to the individual with empathy while also gently calling out and redirecting the unproductive behavior. If you don’t call out (gently) the unproductive behaviors, others will stop engaging. There are several strategies that are useful for striking this balance between empathy and protecting your process.

Assume goodwill. Approach your facilitation with an awareness that people who are disruptive may be trying their best, and with empathy for what they might be struggling with. For example: “I can see that this is very upsetting to you, and it’s hard not to raise your voice. Let’s all take a deep breath and pause. And then we will . . ..” If someone is struggling with a new idea or new information you might say something like, “That can be hard to process, and that’s why we will continue beyond tonight. What additional questions do people have, and what other information might we want to see as we work through this?”

There are certain ways of thinking that invite conflict and others that are more conducive to problem solving. Many people come into a deliberative dialogue with thinking patterns that feed fear or anger. These include patterns like us versus them, either/or and  winner/loser framings, and narratives like “What’s good for them is bad for me”; “If I show uncertainty, I’ll lose”; “All [name category] are bad”; “Don’t agree to anything and you won’t get snookered”; and “They’re all out to get us.” These do not promote dialogue and are unproductive. So as you assume goodwill and respond with empathy, you can also invite more productive patterns. For example, you might say, “It sounds like that comment felt very threatening to you, can you tell us why?” or “Is there a way both interests might be served? What other experiences has the group had?” Or you might say, “It seems like you see only two options and you like neither. Can we think of additional options, or combine elements of each to form a new option?”

Unpack and redirect. Often people will talk over or past each other, and get frustrated as they each feel misunderstood. Here you can help unpack the different conversational threads and invite reflection. This might sound like:

Facilitator: “Are we all in the same conversation? Are you talking about values?”

Participant: “Oh, I was making a point about information.”

Facilitator: “Okay, let’s talk about both the value that was raised and the information you are sharing.”

Be aware that beliefs are not necessarily based on “evidence” even if they are justified that way. I have also seen a number of people, who are very tied to “empirical evidence,” denounce others as “lying” when what is being shared is a strongly held belief. This is very unproductive. Addressing a clash of values or world views as a “factual issue” increases resistance and reduces trust in the process. A better approach would be to say something like, “I am hearing a belief and a very strongly held value as well as different kinds of information being shared. Perceptions are nine-tenths of reality and you have very different perceptions. How might we move forward?”

I will also note that interests can vary a lot depending on the time frame being considered. Sometimes in a longer time frame, long-term interests align even if there are competing interests in the short term. This is often the case with environmental issues. So that is also a good area to explore when people appear to be at cross purposes.

Invite reflection. When discussions get tense it is often helpful to pause and invite reflection. This can be on what participants are hearing from others or on their own reactions. Depending on the audience, I will often show or use a metaphor or a quote that opens up the conversation.

For example, when inviting a group to reflect what they are hearing or learning as others respond, I often use the analogy of “bat sonar.” I’ll ask a group, “How do bats navigate?” (that question alone often seems off topic enough to immediately grab the group’s attention and draw focus away from the point of conflict). And someone will say “echolocation.” And I will say, “Yes, that’s right. They send out a sound, listen to what comes back, and adjust. So let’s look at that in terms of our conversations. We have a choice when people speak to listen and make adjustments so we can better understand each other, or we can just fly headfirst into the conflict. So let’s pause and think about what we’re hearing and what adjustments would help.” You might take a ten-minute break after this and then review expectations for interactions as you return. I have found that people really like this analogy. And I can remind them (and they have reminded each other) to “use your bat sonar” when conflict again starts to flare.

A very powerful quote to use when things start to get acrimonious and you want to encourage self- reflection, patience, and perseverance is the following from a Catholic bishop named Ken Untener:

To accept a truth that changes our perspective requires a certain humility. Getting new insight is not just adding something to a list. It affects the other truths we hold, just as the birth of a new child affects the whole family. That’s why we sometimes close our minds. We fear the chain reaction a new insight might have on everything else.

Almost everyone has experienced the change in a family that a new child brings, so it is a very powerful metaphor. So many individuals and groups that I have worked with have reacted favorably to this slide that I usually have it in reserve on a slide deck even if I am not planning to use it. You can put this up before a break and ask, “As you think about our dialogue so far, what resonates with you and what do you find yourself resisting? Where do you see that in others? When we get together again, we will . . ..” This can be used as part of a “sending forth”[6] between related meetings as well, followed by a statement like, “So I invite you to think about this before our next meeting. What new ideas and information have you heard? What are you struggling with and why? How might we move forward?”

Maintain focus and enforce boundaries. More than once I have encountered a participant who is so excited about the new connections and energy in a dialogue that they decide right then is the time to lobby everyone else for a firm commitment to a particular outcome or cause. For example, a participant might stand up and urge everyone at a session to sign a petition endorsing a policy change pending before the city council, or commit to attending a scheduled rally on some cause. Here again you need to both respect the individual and the group, which by this point is generally looking alarmed, even as some start to enthusiastically respond. So you might note the speaker’s enthusiasm and commend her interest in the community, and then point out that such a call to commitment is inconsistent with the purpose of your event, that many are still reflecting on what has been said and that, given the lack of notice, any of those present in a representative capacity likely lack the authority to make such a commitment. Then turn the group to another topic and move on. This takes the pressure off the group and helps them return to dialogue, while affirming the good intent of the lobbyist. Be aware though, that at times these kinds of disruptions are pre-planned, as someone or some group anticipates the opportunity to appeal to an already assembled audience. So if there are a number of hot issues being debated in your community, think about how you might identify and anticipate the potential for this type of disruption in advance.

Planning ahead. Disruptive behaviors can be unintentional like those discussed above—driven by a combination of strong feelings and defensive behaviors—or they can be planned. Intentional disruptions can be highly disruptive of your process. There are several things you can do when planning your dialogue to identify the risk of disruptions during your dialogue.[7] Identifying disruption risks in advance allows you to mitigate them or even channel participant energy away from disruption into a stronger, more robust dialogue.

There are many reasons people seek to intentionally disrupt a deliberative dialogue. These include

  • a desire to protest someone or something,
  • a fear of where the process might lead,
  • a desire to undermine in advance the credibility of any outcome or of the leaders involved,
  • a belief that disruption is an effective strategy, together with the fear that without it one’s power will be diminished; and/or
  • a desire to bring attention to an unrelated cause.

Disruptive behavior may be provoked as different issues or subgroups interact. For example, one group’s concern with gun rights may set off another group’s concerns about school safety. What government officials might consider purely bureaucratic designations (e.g., “blighted neighborhoods”) may be received by residents and local politicians as more evidence of a long history of disrespect. Or a suggestion that eminent domain be used to achieve some public good can bring groups that seek to defend private property rights into the mix on an issue that they previously ignored.

Here are nine steps to help you identify these types of interactions, assess the risk of disruption, and develop a plan for mitigating that risk:

  1. Assess the nature, source, and likelihood of disruptions. To do this you can review local news media and look at what is being posted on social media. Sometimes you’ll have to interview residents or work with other community contacts to identify and understand these cross-impacts. Then you can use that to inform your process design. So, for example, you may want to plan in breaks and reflection periods that help defuse emotions and promote relationship building, identify “trigger language” and provide a process where parties agree not to use certain phrases, or identify and disclose events or contingencies (such as potential budget cuts) that could have a negative impact on the options for action.
  2. Reach out to likely disruptors in advance to talk about the process and why you hope they engage. Find out what needs they have and how those might be accommodated. This can help you build trust and defuse threats.
  3. Define (and refine) the purpose of your event. You need to choose one that is manageable and not try to fit too much into one meeting.
  4. Align your process to the purpose as discussed in Part 3 of this sub-series.
  5. Provide alternate options for participation. Let people comment online, come at different times, review information beforehand, etc. It sometimes happens that one group may, in advance, threaten or demand exclusion of another. In response, you might explore ways to keep groups separate yet allow all to participate on an equal footing. For example, the groups might meet in separate venues, provide input via written or recorded statements, or send other credible representatives who are willing to abide by the rules.
  6. Communicate both purpose and process clearly, in advance of your event. In particular, I have found it very calming on more than one occasion to stress that we are just seeking input, and no decisions will be made at the meeting. Repeat this as your event begins.
  7. Prepare your facilitators. A facilitator can more readily respond to a disruption if they have been forewarned as to what might occur and had an opportunity to role-play or at least think through the options.
  8. Monitor and fine-tune as the date of the event draws near (your assessment should be ongoing).
  9. Plan for follow through. Record and monitor any follow-up actions or reporting that is agreed to, decide how disruptions will be explained to the media, keep both participants and the wider community informed on how the process is moving, and review lessons learned after each meeting to improve your future gatherings.[8]

*  *  *

Embedding deliberative dialogue in your community takes patience and perseverance. Yet, when done well, the energy and interest in dialogue grows, and like a perennial garden the work lessens and the return increases over time.[9] Note though that in the early stages careful planning and tending are key.

So as you go forward be sure to review what you are learning and how your work is enhancing application of democratic values (Part 1), strengthening networks and promoting sound information (Parts 2 and 3), and ensuring a better flow of civic energy throughout your community (Part 4). Apply what you are learning and, as the habit of deliberative dialogue grows, enjoy and observe the increased resilience and progress that brings.  Building deliberative dialogue is not an exact science but a discipline that is also a creative endeavor. Consider the following quote from the Pope Francis: [10]

Each one of us is called to be an artisan of peace, by uniting and not dividing, by extinguishing hatred and not holding on to it, by opening paths of dialogue and not by constructing new walls.

So don’t be afraid to experiment, plant seeds, learn, and evolve as you bring people together.


[1] See esources on naming and framing in Part 3, endnote 3 of this sub-series.

[2] This TEDx Talk by Dave Meslin provides several great illustrations of “disinvites.” See also this blog post on fairly common behaviors that erode public trust and discourage engagement.

[3] The ideal of citizens gathering for rational discussions seeking common ground is rare in practice. This is why public officials often avoid or constrain public comment by allowing only three minutes at the mic—a format that does nothing to move people through conflicts and adds to the conviction that invitations to engage will not make much difference and so aren’t worth the time and effort.

[4] See, for example, the “heaven” and “hell” exercise in Democracy Rising 7, by Susan Clark.

[5] David Mathews, The Ecology of Democracy (Kettering Foundation, 2014), p. 80.

[6] See Part 4 of this sub-series.

[7] As John Lewis observed, “Activists must take into account Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion, or you might call it a law of action. Newton said that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. That means when activists take a stand, they must accurately anticipate the response to their action. This is one of the most important lessons you can learn from the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. We were successful in creating massive change in society, but we did not fully comprehend the nature of the opposition.” John Lewis, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America (Hachette Books, 2012), p. 141.

[8] The Facilitation Analytics e-book “Dealing with Disruptors” provides a number of tools to help you analyze, plan for, and mitigate both intentional and unintentional disruptions.

[9] In the Papal Encyclical “Fraternal Love”, Oct. 3, 2020, Pope Francis addressed flaws in current political systems and emphasized the power of dialogue to heal them: “Approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground: all these things are summed up in the one word “dialogue.” If we want to encounter and help one another, we have to dialogue. There is no need for me to stress the benefits of dialogue. I have only to think of what our world would be like without the patient dialogue of the many generous persons who keep families and communities together. Unlike disagreement and conflict, persistent and courageous dialogue does not make headlines, but quietly helps the world to live much better than we imagine.” (paragraph 198).

[10] Ibid., paragraph 284.


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