Deliberation in Practice

While there are many rich debates around the theory of deliberation, I turn today to it’s practice. How are real-world deliberation structured and how do those implementations relate to the competing theories of deliberation?

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) offers a great starting point for examining these questions. A network of more than 2,200 deliberative practioners, NCDD “serves as a gathering place, a resource center, a news source, and a facilitative leader for this vital community of practice.”

NCDD actively embraces a pluralistic approach to deliberation, arguing, “no method works in all situations.” The context-dependent nature of deliberation is implicit throughout the practical literature – as each approach typically introduces itself with a short explanation of where it can be of use.

To help communities “decide which types of approaches are the best fit for your circumstances,” NCDD publishes a useful Engagement Streams Framework, which breaks deliberative techniques into four categories:

Exploration: Encourage people and groups to learn more about themselves, their community, or an issue, and possibly discover innovative solutions

Conflict Transformation: Resolve conflicts, to foster personal healing and growth, and to improve relations among groups

Decision Making: Influence public decisions and public policy and improve public knowledge

Collaborative Action: Empower people and groups to solve complicated problems and take responsibility for the solution

NCDD then takes 22 of the most popular deliberative processes and assigns each to one or more of these categories. I have visualized their chart as a network, showing how different deliberative approaches connect to the four categories NCDD identified.


While perhaps not too much can be inferred from this sample of deliberative practices, it is interesting to note that half of the “Decision Making” practices are focused solely on that stream, while “Collaborative Action” processes are always connected to another stream as well. In this model, “Decision Making” and “Exploration” are the most common approaches, with 12 and 11 practices respectively. Additionally, NCDD’s list captures at least one way to combine any two of their identified streams.

It is worth spending some time briefly describing a model distinctive to the three streams that have dedicated approaches – Decision Making, Exploration, and Conflict Transformation.

National Issues Forum – Decision Making
While a National Issues Forum (NIF) is not a formal decision making body, their facilitated deliberations aim to help groups weigh different options. “We are here to move toward a public decision or CHOICE on a difficult issue through CHOICE WORK,” they explain.

They take this approach of choice work quite literally – each of their dozens of issue guides present a topic along with three possible approaches. Participants are asked to reflect on their own experience of the issue and deliberate about the pros and cons of each outlined approach.

This focus on “choice work” may be somewhat misleading, though. NIF is careful to indicate that successful deliberation does not have to end in agreement or action. “Sometimes, forum participants find the use of the word ‘choice’ confusing” they write. “Some assume that they are being asked to choose one of the approaches. And, of course, they are not.”

The NIF definition of deliberation similarly rejects consensus as a mandatory outcome. “It’s not about reaching agreement or seeing eye-to-eye. It’s about looking at the costs and consequences of possible solutions to daunting problems, and finding out what we, as a people, will or will not accept as a solution.”

Finally, while NIF facilitators are encouraged to begin their session with ground rules, their issue guides don’t provide any suggested ground rules to start from. This seems to be an intentional choice embedded in their philosophy: “The responsibility for doing the work of deliberation belongs to the group,” they write.

NIF expects most forums will last around 2 hours, though they leave room for communities to organize multi-session discussions. Typically, a session will have a hundred or more participants, and NIF encourages communities to determine for themselves the mix of small group versus plenary discussion.

World Café – Exploration
World Café gatherings may be large, but their conversations are intimate. While the total number of attendees can venture into the hundreds, hosts are instructed to seat no more than five people together. Conversations take place in at least three rounds of twenty minutes each.

After each round, one person is encouraged to stay as “table host” to the next round “while the others serve as travelers or ‘ambassadors of meaning.’ The travelers carry key ideas, themes and questions into their new conversations, while the table host welcomes the new set of travelers.

World Café hosts are encouraged to develop their own questions, which can be the same or different for each round of inquiry. “Good questions need not imply immediate action steps or problem solving. They should invite inquiry and discovery vs. advocacy and advantage,” they write.

A light and flexible model, World Cafés can be easily implemented in a range of situations to create “a living network of collaborative dialogue around questions that matter in service to real work.”

The model is subtly action-oriented. Hardly so in comparison to other deliberation models, World Cafés are built around the core idea that there are problems in our communities and only we have the power to address them.

As they describe in their host guide: “The World Café is built on the assumption that people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges; that the answers we need are available to us; and that we are Wiser Together than we are alone.”

While some might charge the World Café with being “just talk,” the World Café would retort: “The power of conversation is so invisible and natural that we usually overlook it.”

Public Conversations Project – Conflict Transformation
The Public Conversations Project is a leader in Reflective Structured Dialogue, a technique “designed to help people have the conversation they want to have about some of the most difficult topics.”

Their work is focused on dialogue, “a conversation that is animated by a search for mutual understanding…distinct from conversations focused directly on problem solving.” The Public Conversations Project has led these dialogues in some of the most deeply divided communities, providing spaces for participants to get to authentically know each other without trying to sway each other’s view on an issue.

Dialogues are heavily structured, outlining time for silent reflection, equal time for each person to speak, and a noticeable pause between each person’s response. After every participant responds to the question posed by the facilitator there is an equal time for “questions of genuine interest” which can be posed by any participant to any other participant. These questions seek to “encourage constructive inquiry and exploration that enhances clarity and mutual understanding.”

This highly structured model “empowers participants to share experiences and explore questions that both clarify their own perspectives and help them become more comfortable around, and curious about, those with whom they are in conflict,” and “helps participants engage in constructive, often groundbreaking conversations that can restore trust and lay the foundation for collaborative action.”

Dialogues are typically small group discussions that happen over multiple two-hour session. A community may have multiple dialogues happening at once, but there is typically not a plenary portion of the exchange.

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