Dialogue is a different way of engaging. It is about creating meaning together, thinking about issues in new ways and exploring and building common ground. Deliberative dialogue goes further and asks people to make choices by weighing competing values and priorities, by thinking through pros and cons, and by determining acceptable trade-offs. It is a cornerstone of participatory democracy, where citizens can collectively work through the tough issues facing their community or society and build robust skills for citizenship that go far beyond showing up at the ballot box every four years.

At its best, deliberative dialogue can nourish personal, relational and social change. For example, in a recent process, citizens came together to deliberate on climate change, identify solutions and provide advice to municipal decision-makers in ways that could impact policy and program. To complete this rather daunting mandate, citizens had to explore their own assumptions and values – about climate change, about the economy, about government, about citizenship – and find common ground. Randomly selected, they came into the room with a diversity of viewpoints. They listened to presentations from various perspectives and asked questions. They thought critically about the issue. And they began to really listen to each other and explore ideas together. This broke down the stereotypes they held of one another. It created new understanding and insights that the group used to find common ground on values and principles from which they could provide their best advice to decision-makers.

But deliberative dialogue poses challenges for our sector’s work. When citizens come together to think about tough societal issues, there is no guarantee that they will arrive at the same solutions as we might as NGOs. It requires letting go of the outcomes of the dialogue, which can come into conflict with our campaigning work. We also know that dialogue doesn’t necessarily lead to action – individually or collectively – and when it does, it may go in a different direction than envisioned by us as NGOs.

Reflection questions:

  • How can we use deliberative dialogue to better collaborate with each other and with other stakeholders?
  • Can we accept that citizens can make good judgments, even when they are different from our proposed solutions?
  • How can we bridge dialogue and action? (Or do we need to?) Who defines the action?
  • How can we bring citizen perspectives to policy and decision-makers?