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“We're often surrounded by polarizing debates.  Here's what influential leaders know: Dialogue
doesn't seek closure as debates do, but rather discovers new options.”

Leading Through Conflict by Mark Gerzon

Deliberative Dialogue

Deliberative dialogue is a process that allows people to engage in “public talk.” In other words, it is an exercise in working cooperatively to examine social problems in a way that allows people to share their views, experiences, and uncover their values. Used effectively, it can be a tool for fostering understanding between different individuals or groups. It can help ‘bridge the divides’ among citizens and others who hold dissimilar values, beliefs, and preferences – differences that are often sources of interpersonal conflict, tension, and struggle.

People often confuse dialogue with debate. Deliberative dialogue is not the same as debating. In debates, the goal is to defeat ones opponent with evidence or reason. In deliberative dialogue the goal is sharing worldviews, crystallizing choices, and furthering understanding of others in a respectful manner. This approach allows solutions to emerge out of the abundance of our collective wisdom and experience of the group. When we begin to see the world from the vantage point of others, walls that divide us get broken down and common ground can then be created.

Why is deliberative dialogue important? Over the past century Americans have come to look to institutions to solve our problems and increasingly defined democracy as pulling a lever in a voting booth every two to four years. This vision of democracy is limited, however. It relegates decision-making to others and allows us to forfeit our role in democratic governance. In our daily lives we increasingly look to “experts” to solve our problems, another way of relegating authority over decision-making to others. Citizens are quite knowledgeable about various matters. They have valuable and diverse sources of information and knowledge that are critical to problem solving. They also share a deep concern about their collective future and they want to engage each other in being a part of solutions. With this in mind, the purpose of deliberative dialogue is inform collective action – acting together for the betterment of the whole. Acting together is essential for addressing problems that are beyond the realm of the individual, or actions that impact us all, or the most vulnerable of us. Social problems are complex with multiple causes and, therefore, have to be considered by a number of perspectives working together for a common goal.

The use of deliberative dialogue as a strategy to enhance understanding and problem solving typically relies on the use of trained moderators who organize forums or other opportunities for this kind of public talk to take place. Moderators, are not critical however, deliberative dialogue can be practiced in our everyday discourse with others. Keep in mind, the primary strength of this strategy is that it can help people make sound judgments about complex issues.

Organizing a Public Forum

If you are interested in organizing a public forum in your community, you can get the help you need at Michigan State University. For more information, contact Wynne Wright at wrightwy@anr.msu.edu

Additional Resources:

There are several organizations that have refined the use of deliberative dialogue and promote practices to organize community forums for such dialogue to occur. The following are a few examples of the leaders in this area.

Charles F. Kettering Foundation


Deliberative Dialogue to Expand Civic Engagement (article)


National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation


National Issues Forum


Public Agenda


Working Knowledge


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