Creating spaces for constructive conversations about contentious topics seems like an overwhelming task. Where should initiatives like the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative begin? Deliberation scholars and practitioners generally agree that one of the most important ingredients for productive public discourse is strong facilitation by someone who is trained in bringing people together and being fair to all participants at the table.
For example, Laurie Mulvey, Executive Director of Penn State’s World in Conversation program, which has hosted more than 30,000 dialogues, asserts that just as we need referees when we play a game, “in dialogue we need conversation referees to be able to make the calls for us to help us through the process.”[i] And the literature on deliberation emphasizes the role that facilitators can play in introducing unmentioned topics, challenging consensus, and structuring communication in a way that empowers disadvantaged participants.”[ii]
For these reasons, the DCI started with an intensive four-session deliberation facilitation training program this past spring. Each session lasted two hours and were facilitated by practitioners and professors familiar with different models of public discourse. The training program revealed several important insights about creating opportunities for discourse among those disagree on difficult issues:
- It’s a mindset: Both participants and facilitators need to adopt a set of dispositions that make productive deliberation possible. These include commitments to modeling egalitarianism, demonstrating openmindedness, and providing either experiential or factual evidence to support one’s claims. To explore these mindsets, participants were asked to complete the OpenMinds modules, which discuss the value of engaging with those we disagree, the importance of intellectual humility, and the effects of the irrational mind and our “moral matrices.” Using this framework, facilitators can help participants embrace a “deliberative mindset” that will enable them to work together to better understand a problem and generate transcendent solutions to it.
- It’s a process: Our first two training sessions were led by an experienced facilitator from the Lee Institute, Chryrstal Joy, who emphasized the multifaceted nature of the facilitation process. It requires thoughtful preparation beforehand that clearly identifies roles, clarifies goals, and develops mutually accepted ground rules. It also demands proactive moderation that guides, connects, motivates, questions, intervenes, and keeps participants on track during the deliberation itself. We discussed the nuances of each of these steps, each of which have their challenges. But by following a clear process, it becomes easier to practice the “passionate impartiality” that is necessary to bring everyone into the conversation.
- It’s a model: Dialogue and deliberation initiatives have proliferated dramatically in the past three decades, and with them the number of models being used to facilitate public discourse have increased as well. In our third and fourth sessions, we learned and practiced two particular approaches that have been used in a wide range of contexts. The first was the National Issues Forum model, which provides Issue Briefs for participants to read in advance and focuses on three distinct responses to the issue in focus. The second was the Living Room Conversations model, which is more informal and involves three rounds of discussion – getting to know each other, exploring a topic, and reflecting on the conversation.
Through these sessions, we learned several important insights about deliberation facilitation. By encouraging a deliberative mindset, following a clear process, and using a particular model, facilitators can increase the likelihood that a conversation will be engaging, productive, and rewarding. At the same time, we also realized there is no perfect process or model or mindset, and flexibility and adaptability are important attributes for facilitators and deliberators alike. Along these lines, we came to recognize that facilitation training is never fully complete, but is a lifelong process that occurs through practice, reading, and exposure to new approaches.
The 25 Davidson staff members, tenured and visiting faculty, and first year, sophomore, junior, and senior students who completed the DCI’s inaugural training program have completed a key first step in this journey. They are now ready to help guide conversations on difficult topics, whether they are part of a Deliberative Forum or just between friends or family. If you are interested in learning these skills yourself, sign up for updates below about upcoming DCI training opportunities.
Next week we’ll hear from Davidson’s new DCI Coordinator, Clare Magee, about her experience bringing together students with diverse perspectives when she served as the Executive Director of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship. Stay tuned…!
[i] Democracy Works, “A Conversation about Conversation,” May 21, 2018, https://www.democracyworkspodcast.com/a-conversation-about-conversation/.
[ii] Archon Fung, “Deliberation’s Darker Side: Six Questions for Iris Marion Young and Jane Mansbridge,” National Civic Review, December 25, 2004; Todd Trenel and Seeta Peña Matthias, “Facilitation and Inclusive Deliberation,” in Online Deliberation: Design, Research, and Practice (Chicago, IL: CSLI Publications/University of Chicago Press, 2009), https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.1.4040.0883.