conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Posts Tagged ‘deliberative democracy

Of Trolls and Engineers and Open-Source Dialogue

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What will it take to think together?

How hard can it be to learn something from a conversation?

Really hard—if you go against what your audience believes or wants to believe. In Mistakes were made (but not by me), Tavris and Aronson make a compelling case that facts mostly don’t get in our way when we form opinions. In fact, cognitive dissonance feeds our ability to continually spin our decisions in a positive light. So citing facts becomes like hanging paper in a room—I see you pasting it up and already I’ve tuned out the pattern.

Also hard if you fear reprisal for speaking your opinion. Given the troll-mentality that affects the best of us when hidden behind our keyboard, why dare express an unpopular opinion if some sort of flame war results? And yet saying what we think—stating aloud how we read the situation or how we understand something—is key to learning. We need to hear ourselves to begin to see room for change.

Also hard if talking with a monologist who piles on detail. Engineers are not the only ones guilty of this. Many of us forget to pause, take a breath, and check that anyone cares what we are saying. Learning conversations require a bit of white space.

Learning by talking is also hard if hurried—and perhaps this is the most common difficult. Who’s got time for the long conversations that take hours to unwind? Long car trips are great for this. So are camping weekends. Mrs. Kirkistan once described to me a three-month conversation she had with a good friend when they drove to San Francisco for the summer. I was envious.

We all need a guardrail at times

We all need a guardrail at times


I’ve recently run across a phrase that is new to me but which attracts me very much: deliberative conversations. The phrase seems to suggest a way around the hard bits I’ve described above. This background paper, Deliberative public engagement: nine principles, put out by the National Consumer Council in the UK, seems wildly optimistic about human talk. Take the first three principles:

The process makes a difference

The process is transparent

The process has integrity

And yet, these three, along with the other six principles, describe well the very essence of our best conversations—the ones where we actually learn something, the ones where we change our mind. Shot through this paper is the notion that people need time to sort stuff. And they/we may just need some guidelines to help us move through.

So rather than leaving it at “wildly optimistic,” I might prefer to say, “Yes. These are exactly the requirements each of us has for a truly deliberative, learning conversation.”


How to make that happen?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Scots Deliberate: 61 Minutes of Talk About Talk

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How Our Democracy Fails at Conversation

We all know the September vote for Scottish independence failed and the country remains a part of the United Kingdom. But the conversations and engagement running up to the vote were astounding. One journalist cited 97% of voters were registered and turnout was uniformly high:

The more I think about conversation and the more I look for where it works and where it fails, I cannot help but see that our own (U.S.) version of democracy seems to be largely failing at promoting conversation. There are a lot of reasons for this: from our personal refusal to think beyond our tribe’s talking points to the media’s complicity in monologuing about peripheral issues to our general high levels of distraction and low levels of interest in following an argument.

Two excellent sources that have helped me see our democracy and media with fresh eyes are Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism by Sheldon S. Wolin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), and Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive. Both books begin to unravel the connections between larger corporate interests and the way news is made. Both books advise healthy skepticism of news delivered. And both books have a story to tell about why we as a nation are so disengaged in our political process (hint from Wolin: those in power stay in power by keeping the electorate repulsed and distracted).

But this video of people talking via Google Hangout—which seems about as interesting as your aunt’s travel slides—is actually quite engaging. If you watch, even for just a short while, you’ll hear journalists and academics cite Twitter as a way people named and combatted the spin the media produced. You’ll hear how many voices were heard rather than the same old standard voices. You’ll hear them calling for an inquest into the way media handles discussion. You’ll hear them talk about “deliberative democracy” and “collaborative government.”

But–that sounds like a lot of work and, frankly, who cares?

The bottom line on all the engagement we witnessed with the Scottish vote was that people felt their voice mattered. Scots turned out because their voices mattered.

I cannot help but wonder when our (U.S.) citizenry will begin to tug our democracy back from the vested interests that constantly monologue. Little by little, we’ve got to find the ways in which our voices matter.



Via Oliver Escobar and Citizen Participation Network

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