A Skeptic’s Notes on Deliberative Dialogue

Is equality in dialogue possible?

I had scribbled in the margins of an article on deliberative dialogue which I re-read this morning.

Apparently, I’d been feeling quite skeptical on first read since additional scrawls included:
How do you socialize people to be prepared for engagement? Listening to stupid opinions, being patient.

And perhaps worse:
Is there something elitist in saying “we know public deliberation is best for you?”

I don’t always feel that skeptical. I am, in general, quite in favor of deliberation and would most certainly put it in my mental list of Good Things. And I love the romantic notion that if we were all just a little more open to each other’s views, all a little more prepared to listen thoughtfully, and if we were all more frequently blessed with fabulous facilitation and intentional meeting design – then our deliberative democracy would be something quite awesome to behold.

But I’ve also been battle scarred by poorly facilitated meetings. I’ve seen too many opportunists sure to have their say, and too many disempowered members who don’t think they have anything worth saying. I’ve seen meetings scheduled when “the people” can’t make it, and meetings not offered in the language of a neighborhood.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to a lot of great meetings as well – I love meetings, to be honest. But I’ve seen enough to be, at times at least, deeply skeptical of the ideal – of the “romantic notion” as I called it above.

Today, if you’ll allow, I’d like to explore that skeptism.

Is equality in dialogue possible?

In many ways, my skepticism comes down to that question. The classic example is the bombastic orator determined to make their point and dominate the meeting. This archetype can be troublesome, no doubt, but personally, this is not my top concern. I have confidence in a skilled facilitator’s ability to manage that.

More troublesome to me is the language barrier. I’ve been to meetings run in English and interpreted in Spanish and meetings run in Spanish and interpreted in English. For someone who is not bilingual, I can say clearly that the experience is not the same.

Facilitation can help with this – making sure the interpretation is simultaneous and there are sufficient pauses for those in the non-dominant language to jump in. But even with great facilitation, language barriers are likely to damper someone’s involvement. So at best, it seems like a matter of rotating a group’s dominant language. The alternate solution of keeping groups monolingual is clearly fraught with other challenges.

Multilingual meetings also require a different sense of time planning then most of us are used to – the reality is that having successful multilingual meetings slows conversation down. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, I’d argue that most conversations would benefit from slowing down. So, language barriers are a challenge, but they too seem surmountable.

What worries me most is the baggage that participants come in with. Not only the meeting-dominator, who surely has something complex going on up there, but all the other participants, too.

The person who is tired from a long day or who is hungry from skipping lunch isn’t going to be able to participate fully. The person who’s loved one is in the hospital or who has a major deadline the next day isn’t going to be able to participate fully.

And the person who’s grown accustomed to being silent – who’s confident they have nothing to say, and that their presence is of little to no value – won’t be able to participate fully either.

And, this of course, is assuming those people show up in the first place.

A facilitator can help with some of this – making sure everyone has a chance to speak, engaging everyone in the conversation. But at the end of the day, it’s often not enough. The baggage you bring in with you is the biggest obstacle to your full participation and nobody else can change that for you.

So I worry about those folks, and sometimes I get skeptical.

But I’m not always skeptical. Today, for example, under my earlier note of:
Is equality in dialogue possible?

I added, after a moment’s pause:
Does it matter if it’s not?

Perhaps it’s just the worst form of government…except for all the others.


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