People talk differently. Of course, this isn’t very surprising…yet our methods of dialogue and deliberation seem to imply that everyone pretty much has the same motivation, capacity, style and comfort level. I’m inclined to believe that we could probably discover and identify a number of very unique ‘conversational profiles.’ Diversity can be a strength in deliberative work…when it is recognized and appreciated. When we become more serious about getting people to talk, we’ll do more to identify the profiles that give people a unique role and opportunity in conversations…and we’ll do more to identity the barriers to public talk.
Public talk is an essential part of any effective, participatory government. Voting isn’t enough to put our democratic principles into action. But…in order to have public talk, we have to gather the public…and then make it comfortable enough for people with diverse backgrounds, opinions, conversational profiles, etc. to talk with each other.
Public-making is a critical role in deliberative work…and it’s an art. In deliberation, we want to capture a genuine snapshot of public thinking with an accurate sampling of the most relevant demographic voices. But…this proves to be very difficult…and is quite frustrating. Public-making requires an expenditure of ‘social capital’ or ‘political capital’…where a person who has previously invested in public relationships is willing to go out-on-a-limb to invite people to engage in public talk. And…they come, because they feel their expenditure of time and effort will make a difference on the issue at hand…and will add to their own ‘capital’ for future use.
Through the years, I’ve learned to look for dialectic tensions whenever dilemmas are present. Just like with ‘conversational profiles’…it’s possible to become more focused and more effective when operative barriers and opportunities are identified. Here are two tension pairs…and their natural matrix of public-making options.
Competition and Collaboration: this is a vision of how decisions should be made…in nature, in relationships and in public policies. This tension has its roots in the philosophical concepts of dominance and balance.
Some people see all decisions through the lens of competition. They believe the world works best through natural, competitive selection, even though they may not believe in evolution. In ideas…in business…in politics…even in relationships, it’s all about winning!
Other people see all decision through the lens of collaboration. They believe the world works best through inclusive, small group problem-solving. They want to continually learn from others…and to find innovative, ‘win-win’ solutions to complex dilemmas.
Status Quo and Change: this is a vision of how people are motivated to make decisions in the first place. This tension has its roots in the emotional concepts of contentment and dissatisfaction.
‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ This is the ‘status quo’ attitude of those who believe things are still working well enough to leave it alone. Every issue has a group of people who feel there aren’t enough reasons to change anything. So, these people are either actively or passively resistant to change. They are less likely to show up to discuss a public topic that hasn’t risen to their threshold of importance to even be publicly questioned.
‘Things aren’t working well.’ This is the ‘change’ attitude of those who believe things aren’t working well enough to leave alone. In fact, things are serious enough to expend the time and energy needed to find some new policies and practices…and even some laws. These folks have an urgency and passion that brings like-minded people together to talk about how change can be accomplished.
When we merge these two tensions into a grid, we can see some of our opportunities…and barriers. One quadrant is totally primed for dialogue and deliberation…two others may or may not be willing to engage in public talk…and the remaining quadrant will show up very rarely.
‘Collaboration-Change’ people are perfectly primed for dialogue and deliberation. They believe in collaborative, small group work…and they believe change is necessary in the topic at hand.
‘Collaboration-Status Quo’ and ‘Competition-Change’ have mixed feelings about dialogue and deliberation. ‘Collaboration-Status Quo’ believes in collaboration the best method for making public decisions, but isn’t convinced the topic requires change. ‘Competition-Change’ realizes change is essential on the topic, but isn’t convinced that dialogue and deliberation are the best method to find a sustainable solution. Both of these groups can be coaxed into deliberation with careful public-making, but they won’t show up with a simple invitation.
‘Competition-Status Quo’ is the most resistant group to both public talk and policy change. They are the least likely participants in any public deliberation. And…if they do show up, they’ll be adamant that no change is necessary…and that inclusive, public talk will never produce an effective outcome.
People talk differently…and they talk publicly for different reasons. I believe ‘public-making’ then as a deliberative role should be one of our most urgent research focuses in the dialogue and deliberation community. So far, we’ve done only a marginal job engaging those who are most likely to see deliberation or dialogue as viable options in public decision-making. And…we’ve not really understood or sought out those who are less likely to engage in deliberative problem-solving. These certainly aren’t the only dimensions in public talk…but I think they can provide an entry-point for further discussion.