When we watch a debate between political candidates on television, we know the purpose. Each side is trying to win. Each wants to sway the public to see his/her side of the issues. The candidates spar, trying to score points and undermine their opponents. They are certainly not trying to find common ground! Deliberative dialogue, on the other hand, is a distinct way of conversing that asks us to put aside our inclination or desire to win, to be right, or to have the other person be wrong. It is a method by which we can learn from one another and search for the common ground on which solutions often grow.
Dialogue on its own is characterized by a number of features, including:
- Understand each others’ perspectives and find value therein.
- Uncover assumptions that people bring to the table.
- Engage in an exploratory conversation.
- Search for common ground on which to build new solutions.
- Weigh the possibilities or approaches to a problem and look at the trade-offs that may be involved in choosing one solution over another.
The last feature above is often associated with one type of dialogue called deliberative dialogue. It is is distinct from generative dialogue, where we are generating new ideas. The two can be combined, though, depending on the desired outcome of the engagement. A deliberative approach attempts to help people think together. One of the most common ways that deliberative dialogue is used is when we explore important societal issues. When we debate around an issue in society, we bring forward different positions because we have different understandings of the problem. The way we understand and view the issue is based on our values and principles.
Deliberative dialogue moves beyond that. We look at the different approaches people are taking to a particular issue and create a discussion guide that provides an overview of the issue, the different views on it, and the pros and cons of the approaches. For a successful dialogue, it is important for people to have knowledge of the problem and start on an equal footing. Then we can engage in dialogue and examine each approach. The idea is not to come up with a preference, or to sway people to our “side,” but to uncover our own values and morals and where those are common for the group. From there, we can begin to build our own solutions.
The purpose of deliberative dialogue is to engage, not to polarize, communities. Debate and negotiation can only bring us so far. Deliberative dialogue, though, allows people to stop identifying with their particular solution or idea and to open up to the possibility of other avenues of action. Instead of defending, we are collaborating. Instead of planning how we are going to refute a statement, we actually listen. It is a tremendously powerful form of dialogue, especially as we grapple with increasingly complex social issues.