Deliberative Dialogue

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Scott London:

"Deliberative dialogue is a form of discussion aimed at finding the best course of action. Deliberative questions take the form "What should we do?" The purpose is not so much to solve a problem or resolve an issue as to explore the most promising avenues for action. Following a usage that traces back to the ancient Greeks, deliberation can be defined as the process of establishing intent and resolve, where a person or group explores different solutions before settling on a specific course of action. "We deliberate not about ends," said Aristotle, "but about the means to attain ends." Deliberation is necessary for what is uncertain, he noted, when there may be reasons for deciding on one course of action but equally compelling reasons for deciding on another.

Deliberative dialogue differs from other forms of public discourse — such as debate, negotiation, brainstorming, consensus-building — because the objective is not so much to talk together as to think together, not so much to reach a conclusion as to discover where a conclusion might lie. Thinking together involves listening deeply to other points of view, exploring new ideas and perspectives, searching for points of agreement, and bringing unexamined assumptions into the open. The process usually revolves around a pressing question that needs to be addressed, rather than a problem that can be efficiently solved. A problem needs to be solved; a question cannot be solved, but it can be experienced and, out of that experience, a common understanding can emerge that opens an acceptable path to action.

The Greeks may not have invented dialogue, but they introduced the idea that individuals could not be intelligent on their own, that it was only by reasoning with others that they could uncover the truth for themselves. The Greeks understood that if two or more people were unsure about a question, they could accomplish something together they could not do on their own. By questioning and probing each other, carefully dissecting and analyzing ideas, finding the inconsistencies, never attacking or insulting but always searching for what they could accept between them, they could gradually attain deeper understanding and insight.

In this spirit, deliberative dialogue among a group of people is aimed at establishing a framework for mutual understanding and a common purpose that transcends mere ideas and opinions. While it may not produce consensus, it can produce collective insight and judgment reflecting the thinking of the group as a whole — personal disagreements notwithstanding. It is commonly assumed that the only alternatives to consensus are compromise and dissent. But deliberative dialogue offers another possibility by assuming that individuals' views may be to some degree amorphous and indeterminate until they have been, as Madison put it, "refined and enlarged" through the process of reasoning with others." (