Dialogue, Conflict, and Community

J Kevin Barge. Handbook of Conflict Communication: Integrating Theory, Research, and Practice. Editor: John G Oetzel & Stella Ting-Toomey. Sage Publications, 2006.

There is a growing recognition that our communities have a pluralistic flavor, reflected by the wide variety of individuals and groups who have competing interests; some of which dovetail nicely with one another while others collide with one another in dramatic fashion. It is not surprising, therefore, that conflict scholars and practitioners have turned their attention to the ways that citizens in communities ranging from small towns, to large cities, to regions manage conflicts over important social, cultural, and environmental issues. Barge (2001) observed that many of the conflicts communities grapple with are inherently moral in nature whereby the individuals and groups locked in conflict have incommensurate moral orders that move them to articulate the conflict in different ways because they have distinct value orientations toward what is important. Working through moral conflicts within communities is particularly challenging because changing one’s position involves more than a shift in the actions or policies that one is willing to support; it simultaneously involves a change in identity, as the deeply and passionately felt commitments that people make regarding how they enact and understand their experience are radically changed.

From a communication perspective, managing moral conflicts is challenging because the normal communication tactics that we use, such as explaining, persuading, and compromising, do not work. As Pearce and Littlejohn (1997) observe, when people use “the same language and symbols in incompatible ways” and when “each side is compelled by its highest and best motive to act in ways that are repugnant to the other” (p. 7), making one’s point clearer, successfully persuading people to join the other side, or compromising one’s own values and virtues is unlikely. As a result, managing moral conflicts in communities requires us to adopt a form of discourse that allows citizens to listen deeply to each other’s moral orders, to explore the particular rationality that each uses, and to create new categories that allow the competing moral orders to be compared and weighed. This form of discourse has been called dialogue.

The practice of dialogue within communities has at least two important consequences. First, it helps people build community by having them collaboratively work through conflict. Chasin and colleagues (1996) clearly demonstrate how dialogue can bring together community members who strongly oppose one another on moral issues like abortion to develop more humane and respectful ways of working together. As they point out, their dialogue sessions between pro-life and pro-choice advocates were not aimed at developing a consensus on this moral conflict, but designed to make the conversations between the two sides less polarizing and more collaborative. Second, dialogue fosters democratic practice within communities. Spano (2001) observed that the performance of participatory democracy, or what others have called deliberative democracy (Cooke, 2000) or citizen politics (Mathews, 1994), depends on dialogue. Dialogue, with its focus on including all the voices of the public within the conversation and its emphasis on the free, open expression and discussion of different points of view, is crucial for citizens to participate fully in the political decision-making process.

While there is an emerging consensus that dialogue is helpful for managing community conflict and fostering democracy, it is unclear what obstacles citizens and practitioners confront when creating dialogue for democratic purposes. The focus of this chapter is to explore the relationships among dialogue, conflict, and democracy. In order to explore the challenges that communities confront when engaging in dialogue to manage conflict and foster democracy, I have selected three important movements in the conflict management literature that emphasize dialogical practice: (a) community mediation, (b) public participation and dialogue, and (c) appreciative inquiry. For each movement, I summarize its focus and the associated tensions and dilemmas that must be managed when fostering democracy. I conclude with a discussion of possible future research involving dialogue, conflict, and democracy and highlight some important sensibilities that citizens and practitioners need to cultivate in order to facilitate dialogue.

Democracy, Deliberation, and Dialogue

[T]he most compelling vision of an ideal democracy is one in which there are ongoing, structured opportunities for everyone to meet as citizens, across different backgrounds and affiliations, and not just as members of a group with similar interests and ideas. In these face-to-face settings, not only does everyone have a voice, but each person also has a way to use that voice in inclusive, diverse, problem-solving conversations that connect directly to action and change. (McCoy & Scully, 2002, p. 119)

Two distinct traditions toward democratic practice and communication exist in the U.S. American experience. Representative democracy embodies one tradition of democratic practice within the United States. The early founders, to a great extent, recognized that a dedication to the public good was paramount for the establishment of the republic (Murphy, 1994). Pursuing the common good was difficult, however, given the post-revolutionary political landscape was constituted by a variety of political factions, each pursuing distinct and self-interested goals. Moreover, the United States’ public posed a significant challenge as they were viewed as lacking the self-discipline to focus on the common good, leading to a fear by political elites that they would make unwise and intemperate choices based on heated emotions and passion rather than impartial reason (Jasinski, 1992, 1993). Representative democracy exemplified one way to address the factious nature of political life and ensure justice through the use of sound reason.

Representative democracy is based on two important ideas. First, competitive elections are the best way to elect representative leadership. Representative democracy presumes that the individuals who are elected to local, state, and national offices will be fit and wise, ready to pronounce the public good. While the people may be incapable of governing society directly, they are capable of choosing and holding accountable a small number of elected leaders to govern society. As Matthews (1994) observed,

Officials see their role and relationship to the public in almost precisely the way the theory of representative government says they should: as guardians of the public interest. They believe that the public has an opportunity to vote them out of office if people don’t like the job they are doing. (p. 66)

Second, a procedural system of checks and balances is required to ensure reasonable deliberation. Jasinski (1992) explained Federalists, such as James Madison, emphasized the role of checks and balances in the refinement of individual interests for the common good:

Madison argued that the electoral process outlined in the Constitution provided a system of elections that refined impure virtue and the inchoate public good. In the proposed electoral system, citizens would vote for state legislators, representatives, and presidential electors. Madison explained that these groups would, in turn, refine the public’s vision by eliminating local or partial views through their deliberations. (pp. 204-205)

The refinement of individual to public interest moves through two distinct phases: the election of wise officials committed to the public good, and their subsequent deliberation over important issues and problems. For communication scholars, it is this latter phase that is particularly important. The metaphor of refinement evokes the image of a refiner’s fire burning away impurities, and when used as a lens for viewing the relationship between democracy and communication the impurities associated with factional self-interest can be burned away only through rational deliberation.

Persuasive rational forms of communication such as argument, advocacy, and debate dominate representative democracy as they allow elected officials to articulate the common good. Factional interests are pitted against one another, and through argument, advocacy, and debate, conflicting views and interests are articulated and eventually managed in a way that serves the public interest. The importance of persuasive communication is not limited to the conversations among elected officials; it also carries over to the kinds of conversations between elected officials and the public. Yankelovich (1991, 1999) observed that representative democracy is informed by a culture of technical control that begins with the assumption that elected officials know the views of the electorate and are able to represent them well. When coupled with the belief that policy decisions are best rendered by experts who possess specialized knowledge and skills and that the public is largely apathetic about issues that do not directly affect their pocketbook, the experts share their information with the public and attempt to convince the public about the validity of their positions in an attempt to win consent. He calls this form of communication public education, which positions members of the public in a subordinate secondary position to elected officials.

A second tradition of democratic practice in the U.S. American experience is participatory democracy (Barber, 1984), or what others have referred to as deliberative democracy (Cooke, 2000) or citizen politics (Mathews, 1994). Emerging from the early U.S. American habit of town hall meetings, participatory democracy emphasizes the participation and contribution of everyday citizens in making important decisions that affect their lives and common destiny. As Spano (2001) observed,

In participatory democracy citizens are actively engaged in public decision-making processes. This means that they are involved in shaping the issues that confront them, deciding among various policy options and developing concrete projects that allow them to achieve common goals. (pp. 22-23)

Participatory democracy emphasizes citizens in conversation with one another deliberating over what choices might be pursued to address public problems and interests. Participatory democracy shares a family resemblance to Habermas’s (1984) notion of the public sphere where citizens freely come together and have political conversations over what matters most to the public. The public sphere is not limited to already existing definitions and frames of problems as determined by the state; rather, Benhabib (1992) noted “the effect of collective action in concert will be to put ever new and unexpected items on the agenda of public debate” (p. 95). By engaging with one another in conversation, new possibilities for articulating issues, problems, and solutions emerge.

Participative democracy, however, does not displace the need for elected leaders; rather it brings elected leaders into a different kind of relationship with citizens. Citizens are positioned as equal partners in the deliberative process as opposed to a subordinate secondary player. Daniels and Walker’s (2001) multi-stakeholder approach toward addressing environmental and land-use issues is illustrative of elected and appointed state officials acting as equal partners with citizens. They observed that the U.S. Forest Service historically had its technical experts analyze potential land-use policies for national parks and lands and develop a plan that then was subjected to a series of public hearings to collect public opinion. Citizens typically viewed such hearings as adversarial because the technical experts of the government agency were viewed as imposing their views on the public: more concerned about persuading citizens about the correctness of their views than listening to the deeply felt concerns of citizens. Daniels and Walker (2001) demonstrated how multi-stakeholder dialogues with environmentalists, hikers and campers, land developers, homeowners, business owners, and the like can be used collaboratively to frame land-use issues and jointly develop solutions. Rather than view their role as educating the public over a particular issue and persuading the public to accept their expert analysis, elected officials and technical experts engage in dialogue with their constituents and collaboratively frame issues and problems.

Participatory democracy emphasizes more collaborative and inclusive forms of communication. Matthews (1994) pointed out several differences between representative and participatory democracy, or what he calls conventional and citizen politics:

While conventional politics uses a language of advocacy and “winning,” citizen politics uses a language of practical problem solving and relationship building. Conventional politics is more about having diversity; citizen politics is more about using diversity and getting diverse groups to work together. Conventional politics looks on the public as a source of accountability; citizen politics looks to the public for direction. Conventional politics gives citizens information; citizen politics teaches the skills of effective public action. Conventional politics is about coordinated action; citizen politics is about complementary or collaborative action. Conventional politics creates public events; citizen politics creates public space. (p. 137)

If citizen politics is about fostering citizens’ participation in the democratic process in their community, then communicative practices must help citizens build relationships, use their diversity to address important issues, articulate a common direction, and foster collaboration. Dialogue represents one form of communication that helps participatory democracy achieve its potential by emphasizing the importance of listening and understanding one another while using critical thinking and argument to facilitate citizen decision making (McCoy & Scully, 2002).

The practice of dialogue within participatory democracy efforts has taken different forms. Pearce and Pearce (2004) noted that many participatory democracy practitioners in communities focus on dialogue such as the National Issues Forum (Gastil & Dillard, 1999a, 1999b; Mathews, 1994), Study Circles (2005), and the Public Dialogue Consortium (Spano, 2001). While each of these practitioner groups describes what they do in different ways, they share several common commitments that emphasize developing collective thinking and fostering respectful relationships:

  • Multiple voices, perspectives, and points of view constitute communities. Dialogue provides a space for this multivocality to emerge and be respected.
  • Otherness and alterity are valued. It is important to honor, engage, and understand different citizens and groups within a community, particularly if they articulate a position you oppose.
  • Dialogue involves a richer understanding of the complexity of a situation, issue, or problem. Dialogue helps citizens see the connections among differing positions and interests.
  • New possibilities for meaning and action are generated through dialogue. Dialogue allows for the emergence of new possibilities that may be totally different than the original ideas and positions that existed prior to dialogue.
  • Dialogue transcends polarization by moving beyond antagonistic realities to a seeking of the commonplaces that link people together.

The practice of dialogue does not guarantee the accomplishment of participatory democracy in the form of consensually agreed upon policy decisions. But it does provides a way of being and living together that recognizes the differences that exist among members of a community and highlights possibilities for collaboration.

Locating Space for Dialogue and Community

The idea that dialogue can help communities manage conflict and foster democracy has grown dramatically since the turbulence of the 1960s. An exhaustive review of emerging dialogic practice would encompass several literatures, including environmental disputes (Peterson & Franks; Depoe, Delicath, & Elsenbeer, 2004), planning processes (Forester, 1999), public participation research (Delli Carpini, Cook, & Jacobs, 2004), stakeholder theory (Deetz, 1995), public dialogue (Spano, 2001), and community building (Mathie & Cunningham, 2003). For purposes of this review, I focus on three community-based movements: (a) community mediation, (b) public participation and dialogue, and (c) appreciative inquiry. Table 19.1 compares the three movements regarding the commitments each makes and the challenges each confronts when fostering democracy, dialogue, and conflict management. These three approaches were selected because they explicitly linked dialogue, democracy, and conflict and have increasingly been the focus of communication theorists and researchers. For each movement, I describe the process, explain how it is dialogic, and highlight challenges to dialogue.

Community Mediation

Mediation is typically defined as assistance to two or more disputants by third-party neutrals that typically do not have the authority to impose an outcome on the disputant (Wall, Stark, & Standifer, 2001). Community mediation is characterized by the use of volunteers from differing backgrounds who begin mediating after receiving a relatively short amount of training. This emphasis on volunteerism directly places “the responsibility of neighborly relations and the civil duty of peacemaking on the citizenry” (Tan, 2002, p. 289). Community mediation encompasses a variety of mediation activities, including interventions in judicial systems, family disputes, and public arguments over the environment and land-use management (see Donohue, Chapter 8and Peterson & Franks, Chapter 15, both in this volume). Community mediation has grown dramatically during the past 25 years as the National Association for Community Mediation (2005) estimated that more than 550 community mediation programs exist, more than 19,500 volunteers serve as community mediators, over 76,000 citizens have been trained by community mediation programs, more than 97,500 cases are referred to community mediation centers on an annual basis, and over 45,500 cases are mediated annually.

Community mediation, democratic practice, and dialogue. Community mediation programs have developed along two different paths. According to Bradley and Smith (2000), one path evolved from an initial effort to reform the justice systems or what Shonholtz (2000) calls the justice center model. Court reform advocates viewed community mediation as a way to lessen the court caseload by diverting appropriate cases such as victim-offender mediation and small claims to community mediation. The benefits to the judicial systems were both economic and substantive as community mediation helped the judicial system reduce its case processing costs and citizens were given more efficient and accessible services that led them to be more satisfied with their judicial system experience. While community mediation centers are not limited to performing court-related mediations, a large proportion of the caseload and financing for most local community mediation centers still comes from the judicial system.

The other path of community mediation was a response to the urban turmoil and social justice issues of the 1960s. Historically, many of the disputes that surfaced within our communities were managed by societal and community institutions, not by the courts. The Department of Justice Report in the 1980s pointed out that several institutions such as the family, church, and informal community leaders would settle disputes before they got to the courts:

Table 19.1 Comparing Three Approaches to Democracy, Conflict Management, and Dialogue
Community Mediation Public Participation and Dialogue Appreciative Inquiry
What is the approach’s commitment to democratic practice? Community mediation promotes local democracy building by creating a space outside of the legal system to manage disputes and by strengthening the capacity of citizens to manage disputes. Public participation and dialogue emphasize the importance of bringing multiple stakeholders together to deliberate about important community issues. Public participation and dialogue processes typically lead to new actions and policy initiatives taken by individuals and groups in the community. Multiple stakeholders comprise a community and community transformation can occur if they are engaged in meaningful dialogue with one another. Dialogue emphasizes stakeholders having a voice in the process by engaging in affirmative discourse that stresses the positive core of the community—its values, best practices, peak moments, hopes, and dreams.
What is the approach’s perspective on conflict management? Conflict is best managed by having citizens mediate conflicts among citizens. Managing conflict depends on developing structures for citizens to have voice, typically through processes such as venting or storytelling, and to invent mutually satisfying options for reaching agreement. Conflict is managed by creating forums that foster learning among stakeholders. Creating safe space where stakeholders can explore their own and others’ positions and interests from a position of curiosity is important. Conflicts are best managed by using affirmative linguistic practice. Language, stories, and metaphors used to manage conflict should emphasize past successes, core values, and future hopes and dreams. Deficit language that solicits voices of vulnerability, critique, hurt, shame, and anger should be avoided.
What are the challenges associated with fostering democracy and dialogue and managing conflict? Overreliance on Judicial Funding: Community mediation centers heavily rely on judicial-system funding. This may decrease centers’ autonomy as their ability to refuse inappropriate case referrals is decreased in order maintain funding. This may also lead mediators to pressure disputants toward reaching settlement. Lack of State Accountability: The state’s responsibility and contribution to community conflicts is minimized as the state is positioned as a dispute processor rather than a party in disputes. Representation: Ensuring representation of key stakeholders during dialogue is difficult due to large numbers of stakeholders as well as time and economic constraints. Fairness: Maintaining fairness during dialogue poses a challenge as practitioners must balance competing goals, such as the need to be inclusive by including a large numbers of stakeholders but exclusive in order to have a manageable number of people to explore an issue in depth. Suppressing Voices: “Negative” stories and voices may be suppressed during dialogue. The result is that certain voices go unrecognized and unheard.
Cultural Pressure: Cultural differences may challenge dialogic process as a particular culture may privilege the mediator’s voice over those of the disputants. Overemphasis on Deliverables: Dialogue processes may over-emphasize action orientation and creating deliverables in the form of new programs and policies at the expense of relationship building.

The courts have not actively sought to become the central institution for dispute resolution; rather the task has fallen to them by default as the significance and influence of other institutions has waned over the years…. Many of the disputes which are presently brought to the courts would have been settled in the past by the family, the church, or the informal community leadership. Although the current role of these societal institutions in resolving interpersonal disputes is in doubt, many citizens take their cases to the courts. (Cook, Roehl, & Sheppard, 1980, p. 2, as cited in Hedeen & Coy, 2000, p. 353)

Community conciliation mechanisms, such as neighborhood justice centers, were created to give citizens an alternative to the court system and allowed them to participate in the prevention and early intervention of community conflicts. Citizens within neighborhoods were placed at the center of the conciliation process as the “principles of democratic participation, drawing on citizen rights and responsibilities and the involvement of networks of community organizations” was emphasized (Bradley & Smith, 2000, p. 316).

The point of community mediation was local democracy building and to create a truly alternative system that would keep many disputants from seeing the inside of the courtroom.

Community mediation programs shared many of the goals of court reform programs but also elaborated them in the following ways:

  • Address disputes before they entered the formal legal system.
  • Prevent and deescalate conflicts.
  • Use conciliatory mechanisms as a vehicle for addressing the relationship between disputing parties.
  • Strengthen the capacity of neighborhood, church, school, and social service organizations to address conflict effectively.
  • Strengthen the role of citizens in the exercise of their democratic responsibilities.
  • Use community support to recruit volunteers as diverse as the neighborhoods served and to solicit appropriate conflicts and issues. (Shonholtz, 2000, p. 332)

Challenges to dialogical communication in community mediation. The conduct of community mediation emphasizes a democratic process where each party’s voice is heard and all parties work collaboratively to accomplish a mutually desirable outcome. The importance of democratic process and dialogic practice within mediation episodes is particularly pronounced given the transformative turn in mediation (Bush & Folger, 1994) with its dual emphasis on empowerment and recognition—being able to articulate your interests and positions in ways that others will be able to hear, understand, and appreciate while simultaneously recognizing the interests, perspectives, and views of others. Rather than focus on the way dialogue functions within mediation, I want to focus on the pressures that community mediation centers face and how these pressures influence the possibility to foster dialogue.

First, there is a concern that the judicial system exercises undue influence over the mediation process, diminishing the possibility for democratic process to emerge. Some argue the close ties to judicial systems do not make community mediation a genuine alternative, but a supplement to judicial systems (Mulcahy, 2000). Since roughly half of the community mediation centers associated with the National Association for Community Mediation receive more than 50% of their case referrals from the court systems (Bradley & Smith, 2000) and “form often follows funding” (Davis, 1986, p. 35), the close tie to judicial systems may influence the types of cases that are accepted and the way they are mediated by community mediation centers.

Hedeen and Coy (2000) contended the close relationship between the courts and community mediation centers might undermine democratic process due to a loss of autonomy to turn back inappropriate referrals, the appearance of coerced participation by disputants, and a pressure to achieve agreement. They noted that community mediation centers may not be able to turn back inappropriate referrals because they fear upsetting their major funder. Disputants may also perceive little choice but to participate in mediation because many states in the United States have created statutes that mandate their participation (Thoennes, Salem, & Pearson, 1995; Winston, 1996). Finally, disputants and mediators are pressured to achieve agreement because community mediations that fail to produce written agreements are viewed as “unsuccessful.” For example, in a 1998 profile of a North Carolina program, McGillis (1998) observed, “Referral letters from the district attorney’s office have a stronger tone and are sent by the Center on official stationery from the district attorney’s office” with the warning, “If you choose not to appear at the Dispute Settlement Center or if mediation is not successful, you must be in Criminal Court at [specific time and place]” (italics added, in Hedeen & Coy, 2000, p. 359). Such language pressures disputants to achieve agreement, even if it is not in their best interest, for fear of going to court, and also influences mediators to apply pressure on disputants to achieve agreement. This pressure toward agreement is not surprising given that the success of community mediation programs is typically measured by dispute settlement rates (Wall et al., 2001). However, as Hedeen and Coy (2000) argued, written settlements are a byproduct of mediation, and community mediation’s more important advantages include “its ability to address conflicts constructively, respect each party’s perspective, empower individuals to take personal responsibility for conflicted relations, establish mutually beneficial dialogue, and reduce violence” (p. 356).

Second, the state emerges as a dispute processor rather than being implicated as one of the parties in dispute. Mulcahy (2000) observed that many times neighborhood disputes are constructed as conflicts between neighbors such as tenants and landlords, which ignores the role of the state or government as a party in the conflict. For example, Mulcahy (2000) described two tenants in a public housing unit who were in conflict with one another over noise due to poor insulation. When remanded to mediation, such disputants would typically engage in “confessional discourse” (Pavlich, 1996) with each other, reporting their transgressions to one another and locating the blame for the conflict in either one or both parties. What this mode of “confessional discourse” ignores is the role of the state in constructing public housing units with poor insulation in the first place. In this actual dispute, the mediators depersonalized the conflict by pointing out that the disputants were in conflict with each other through no fault of their own, which created the space for them to work through the issue and become aware of how the state contributed to the problem by providing substandard housing. Moreover, the mediators were able to collect instances of such conflicts and report them to the local housing authorities. Mulcahy’s (2000) research not only highlights how the state shifts its position from a potential disputant to a dispute processor, but how the confidentiality of the mediation process may prevent important issues from becoming public. In this instance, the mediators were able to collect information and share it with the public housing managers, but mediation is typically viewed as a private and confidential matter, and settlements are not discussed publicly. As a result, important community issues may go unnoticed given the private nature of community mediation.

Third, differing cultural expectations regarding peacemaking can undermine dialogic practice within mediation. Cloke (1994) characterized mediation as an inherently democratic practice because elites do not dictate the outcome and disputants achieve their outcomes through a neutral process. Such processes typically view the mediator as employing facilitative versus directive techniques (i.e., not telling the disputants what to do). However, in some cultures, directive facilitation by a mediator may be needed. Tudy-Jackson (cited in Smith, 2000) acknowledged when establishing a mediation program in Chinatown in New York that the Chinese community expected the mediator to “tell them what to do,” and when the mediator did not, felt highly dissatisfied with the process. While mediators from Eastern cultures tend to utilize techniques that emphasize harmony and save the face of disputants (e.g., Baine & Sawatzky, 1991), mediators from Eastern cultures also are likely to employ pressure tactics by threatening and criticizing disputants, as well as demanding concessions from them (Abu-Nimer, 1996; Callister & Wall, 2004). The ability to use pressure tactics in Eastern cultures may be due to the disputant’s respect for elders’ viewpoints. Given that mediators are often trusted, elder spokespersons in the neighborhood and Eastern culture views elders’ viewpoints with honor and respect, the opportunity to use pressure tactics is enhanced.

The key issue in the intersection between mediation and culture is how to balance the democratic tendency rooted in the dominant model of mediation in U.S. culture when disputants from other cultures may not share that impulse. Historically, co-mediation, a process where two mediators representing the culture of each disputant, has been recommended as one way to manage cultural differences (Weinstein, 2001). Co-mediation allows disputants to be heard fully and their cultural background to be taken seriously. However, it does not assume that the fundamental model for mediation that emphasizes disputants collaboratively working out their differences and mediators adopting a facilitative approach changes. For example, consider the typical skills mediators need to develop in order to be effective: active listening, restating, summarizing, asking questions, reframing, reflecting, acknowledging, issue framing, agenda setting, option generation, and deliberation (Domenici & Littlejohn, 2001). While these skills may be adapted depending on the cultural background of the disputants, the overall model does not allow for the development of skills such as pressuring, criticizing, and demanding. Given that some cultures may grant the mediator the authority to perform such communicative acts, it becomes important to see how such forms of communication alter, subvert, or enhance the practice of democracy in mediation.

Public Participation and Dialogue

Public participation and dialogue refer to those processes that solicit citizens’ opinions and engage them in conversation regarding community conflicts and issues (Rowe, Marsh, & Frewer, 2004). Given that multiple stakeholders exist within communities, each with differing interests, it becomes important to work with assorted stakeholders in order to manage community conflicts and disputes. This recognition has led practitioners to emphasize more democratic processes that emphasize collaborative and dialogic forms of communication to mediate community conflicts. The community planning literature provides a good example of the shift from expert monological forms of communication where elites dictate solutions to community conflicts to collaborative dialogical forms of communication where various stakeholders jointly craft solutions to community conflicts (see Forester, 1989, 1993, 1999; Healey, 1996, 1997). Community planners traditionally have adopted a rational-scientific planning model, which emphasizes technical rationality. This means that ends must be clearly articulated and the most efficient means to achieve ends identified. The rational-scientific planning model privileges expert opinion because only those individuals with the appropriate technical and scientific training are in a position to make important judgments for a community. Though community planners solicited public opinion, they typically structured meetings in ways that valued expert voices and dismissed citizen voices as being uniformed (Ratliff, 1997). Community planning theory and research has now taken a communicative turn that emphasizes the importance of dialogical communication where a diverse set of voices from within the community is invited to participate in conversation and stakeholder collaboration is underscored (Lidskog, 1997).

A variety of rationales have been offered for the importance of public participation and dialogue for democratic practice (Campbell & Marshall, 2000; Ryfe, 2002; Spano, 2001). These rationales range from creating a more informed and knowledgeable public, to fostering cooperation among stakeholders, to developing effective public policy. Assessing the validity of these rationales requires us to examine the empirical evidence regarding who takes part in public participation and dialogue, what conversational formats are used to foster such discourse, and the consequences of engaging in public participation and dialogue.

Antecedents of participation. Numerous factors have been linked to citizens’ participation in dialogues over community issues. Citizens who participate in community dialogues tend to be higher in socioeconomic status (Ryfe, 2002), White (Laurian, 2004), longer term residents of a community (Greenberg & Lewis, 2000), and occupy centralized positions in social networks (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). Laurian (2004) provided perhaps the most comprehensive model to predict citizen participation. Building on Hirschman’s (1970) and Lyons and Lowery’s (1986) model of exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect as responses to stress, Laurian (2004) explored the comparative influence of sociodemographic characteristics, individual motivations, local social context, and trust in government agencies on participation (voice) and nonparticipation (exit, loyalty, neglect) in environmental issues.

Laurian (2004) found that individual motivations in the form of knowledge, perceptions of environmental risks, and attachment to the community were the main predictors of participation. She also found that length of residency and distrust of the governmental agency in charge of addressing the issue was correlated positively with participation. Nonparticipation in local politics was predicted best by trust and resignation. Citizens did not participate in community action over environmental issues if they trusted the agency in charge of the environmental remediation or if they were resigned to the fact that the unsatisfactory situation would not be addressed. The finding on trust is particularly interesting in light of the mixed research on the role trust plays in public participation. Some researchers have contended that trust fosters higher levels of participation (Docherty, Goodlad, & Paddison, 2001; Gopalan, 1997), while other researchers suggested that political mobilization is more likely when trust in government is low and people believe their participation will make a difference (Gamson, 1968). Laurian’s (2004) finding suggests that public participation is negatively correlated with trust.

Public participation and dialogue practices. A wide variety of public participation and dialogue models and practices have been developed at both a macro and micro level. A full review of the various models and practices is not possible in this chapter and the reader is referred to several studies that compare and contrast different public participation and dialogue programs (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997; Ryfe, 2002). For purposes of this chapter, the common themes that characterize participation and dialogue processes at a macro and a micro level are presented. At a macro level, a number of models for structuring citizen conversations have been articulated. Such models include the National Issues Forum (Gastil & Dillard, 1999a, 1999b), the Appreciative Inquiry Summit (Powley, Fry, Barrett, & Bright, 2004), Future Search (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995), Study Circles (Study Circles, 2005), deliberative polling (Fishkin, 1995), Open Space (Owen, 1997), citizen juries (Coote & Lenaghan, 1997; Crosby, 1995), the SHEDD model (Pearce & Pearce, 2001), design charrettes (Tyler, 2003), and dialogue sessions (Chasin et al., 1996). Each model articulates a set of practices for structuring dialogue, and these are typically applied to a wide range of community issues. Table 19.2 briefly summarizes each model’s approach. Despite the diversity of models, “Common to all… is the deliberative component where participants are provided with information about the issue being considered, encouraged to discuss and challenge the information and consider each others’ views before making a final decision or recommendation for action” (Abelson et al., 2003, p. 242).

Take, for example, the study circles process developed by the National Issues Forum (NIF) and the SHEDD model articulated by the Public Dialogue Consortium (Pearce & Pearce, 2001). The NIF model emphasizes the importance of study circles as a way for citizens to familiarize themselves with issues and have input into the political process. A typical NIF process includes the following steps: (a) the distribution of an issue booklet prior to the meeting to participants that focuses on an important topic of interest such as the environment, (b) the completion of a pre-forum ballot on the issue to focus people’s position on the issue, (c) a review of NIF’s goals and philosophy at the beginning of the forum, (d) the sharing of participants’ stories of personal experience with the topic to the group, (e) participant deliberation on the pros and cons on alternative choices that can address the problem, and (f) the use of harvesting—where differences and common ground in regard to the values and any shared values can be communicated to the policy makers (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997).

The Public Dialogue Consortium developed a five-phase model called the SHEDD model to foster dialogue over important issues within school settings (Pearce & Pearce, 2001). The five phases include (a) Getting S tarted—enlisting support from key decision makers and training student facilitators; (b) Hearing All the

Table 19.2 Macro-Level Models for Structuring Citizen Conversations

National Issues Forum (http://www.nifi.org). Sponsored by the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forum (NIF) creates a number of issue booklets on important community and society issues such as the environment. The issue booklets contain general information on the topic as well as the pros and cons for three possible solutions that may be selected to manage the issue. Small groups of citizens are invited to read the issue booklet and have a facilitated discussion on the topic where they engage in choice work (selecting among the three choices) and harvesting (the articulation of shared common ground and potential values that may be shared with policy makers).
The Appreciative Inquiry Summit (http://appreciativeinquiry.cwru.edu/). The Appreciative Inquiry (AI) Summit is a four-phase process designed to elicit best practices, core values, highpoints, and peak moments in community and leverage these resources for positive change. Paralleling the original 4-D model articulated in the initial theoretical explication of AI, the four phases of the AI Summit include (a) Discover, (b) Dream, (c) Dialogue, and (d) Destiny. The importance of affirmative linguistic practice in terms of topic framing and dialogue is emphasized.
Future Search (http://www.futuresearch.net). Future Search is a conferencing technique that emphasizes whole system change by getting all key stakeholders in the room and focusing on the future versus problems. The process is organized chronologically with participants initially focusing on the past, then discussing the present where they develop mind maps of the trends affecting the discussion topic and describe what they are currently doing and are proud of, to articulating future scenarios. The conference concludes with participants confirming common ground and action planning.
Study Circles Resource Center (http://www.studycircles.org). Study Circles emphasize communitywide participation in deliberative democracy. A coalition representing the diverse interests in a community organizes the process and involves people from different parts of the community. Trained facilitators run several study circles concurrently over a period of 2 months. During the study circles, easy-to-read non-partisan materials on the issue in question are provided to participants and participants seek to understand the complexity of the issue and develop community-based solutions. A large community meeting is held at the end of the study circles, to pull together the action items emerging from all the study circles.
Deliberative Polling (http://www.la.utexas.edu/research/delpol/cdpindex.html). Deliberative Polling® begins by conducting a scientific poll using a random representative sample of citizens to survey public opinion on an issue. Members of the sample then attend a 2-3 day meeting where they participate in a facilitated discussion to generate questions regarding the issue. Prior to the meeting, they receive briefing materials outlining the issue that represent differing viewpoints. They then dialogue with experts and political leaders based on the questions they develop. A post-meeting survey is sent following the deliberation that mirrors the questions asked in the initial survey to assess what changes, if any, occurred as a result of participating in the event.
Open Space (http://www.openspaceworld.org). Developed by Owen Harrison (1997), Open Space is a self-organizing deliberative conference. People are invited to discuss a topical theme and come to a venue where they are initially seated in a large circle. Participants are asked to come before the group and volunteer to lead a breakout session on an issue related to the topical theme that they find to be significant. The agenda is completely open, with the walls of the meeting room simply covered with a grid of meeting times with room assignments. Participants create the agenda by writing down the topic they will be discussing during their breakout session in one of the spaces. Open Space is iterative as participants work in breakout groups, come back to the large group to report the results, alter the agenda in light of the large-group discussion that takes place, and return to breakout sessions. Facilitators are charged with taking notes, and during a closing ceremony the notes from the entire process are typically given to the people, who will continue the process.
Citizen Juries (http://www.jefferson-center.org). Public policy makers and government officials may use citizen juries to gauge informed citizen opinion regarding an issue. Citizen juries use scientific polling techniques to create a representative sample of citizens, typically 18-24, that will deliberate on an issue for a number of days and make recommendations on the best way to manage it. Witnesses offer testimony on the specific issue, and the testimony is balanced to represent all sides to an issue. After becoming informed about the topic through testimony, citizens deliberate and make recommendations.
Public Dialogue Consortium’s SHEDD Model (http://www.publicdiaglogue.org). Developed in the context of fostering school dialogues, the SHEDD model emphasizes the importance of engaging students as facilitators of the dialogue process (Getting Started). Once trained, the student facilitators work at making sure all student, teacher, and administrative voices are heard (Hearing All the Voices) and, as differing voices are heard, work at framing issues in ways that foster constructive dialogue (Enriching the Conversation). As the process unfolds, action plan scenarios are developed and discussed (Deliberating the Options). The results of the dialogue are then reported back to the participants and a new round of student facilitators is trained (Deciding and Moving Together). The SHEDD model is grounded in several traditions such as deliberative democracy, systemic thinking, and Appreciative Inquiry.
Design charettes. Design charettes are short, intensive design and planning activities. They typically take the form of group meetings convened by designers such as urban planners to bring key stakeholders and designers together to talk about development projects (Tyler, 2003). Though the actual form of the charettes may vary, they emphasize collaborative work among key stakeholders in a design project. For an example of the charette process, see the National Charette Institute (http://www.charretteinstitute.org/).
Public Conversations Project (http://www.publicconversations.org). The Public Conversations Project (PCP) is guided by a model of facilitation that emphasizes transparency, an openness to participants about the assumptions and beliefs the PCP works from, and developing a set of deliberative methods that foster ownership in the process by participants. A 13-phase model of PCP’s Collaborative Dialogue Process has been developed that includes the initial request and establishment of the contract, provisional meeting design, pre-meeting facilitation in the form of engaging participants in a conversation about the topic and the ground rules that will inform the discussion, the structure of the meeting among participants, and follow-up reflections and reports. One distinctive characteristic of PCP’s work is its creation of safe space for dialogue by setting conversational ground-rules.

Voices—identifying the topic for the dialogue process and reflecting on the selection process; (c) Enriching the Conversation—engaging in dialogue and issue framing; (d) Deliberating the Options—discussing the pros and cons of action plan scenarios and moving toward a decision; and (e) Deciding and Moving Together—reporting the results of the dialogue back to the participants and having the current student facilitators train a new group of student facilitators. Though these two models vary in their number of phases and their labels for each phase, they share a common commitment to inclusivity—making sure that different perspectives, voices, and positions are honored and heard in regard to an issue, information accessibility—providing participants timely and relevant information, and deliberation—the careful weighing of different possible solutions.

At a micro level, a number of communication practices that foster dialogue have been identified elsewhere in more detail (see Littlejohn, Chapter 14 in this volume). They include creating safe space (Chasin et al., 1996; Isaacs, 1993); developing effective facilitation skills such as active listening, questioning, topic framing, and reflecting (Pearce & Pearce, 2001); and increasing personal capacities such as listening, respecting, suspending, and voicing (Isaacs, 1999). Though a variety of communication micro practices have emerged that are associated with dialogue, two key themes characterize these micro practices. First, micro practices such as active listening, questioning, and suspending reflect a commitment to effective deliberation. Echoing the micro practices associated with action research, they emphasize the ability of persons to inquire into their own and others’ positions and interests as well as advocate for their own and others’ positions (Argyris, 1993). From a dialogic perspective, the key is to maintain a constructive tension between these two processes (Senge, 1990). Second, micro practices such as creating safe space, topic framing, and respecting emphasize the relational elements of dialogue. Dialogic practice is more than simply collective thinking; it simultaneously emphasizes developing collaborative working relationships among participants. While differing typologies of dialogic micro practices exist, there is a shared commitment to managing tensions during dialogue—both between advocacy and inquiry as well as deliberation and relational management.

Consequences of public participation and dialogue. Public participation and dialogue processes contribute to the transformation of both individuals and communities. Public participation and dialogue processes have been linked to a variety of individual outcomes. The research suggested when people participate in dialogue they altered their beliefs and perceived the sponsoring government agency of the dialogue as being more responsive to their needs (Halvorsen, 2003), were more likely to become involved in other forms of civic engagement such as voting (Delli Carpini et al., 2004; Gastil, Deess, & Weiser, 2002), and became more knowledgeable about the topic and better able to generate more sophisticated opinions regarding policy choices (Gastil & Dillard, 1999a, 1999b). The results suggested that participating in dialogue facilitated persons becoming better citizens as they became more likely to engage with civic life and more educated about issues.

Engagement with public participation and dialogue not only transforms individuals but communities as well. Most of the research that explores how participation and dialogue processes connect to community outcomes is anecdotal. Gastil (2000) provided an illustrative summary of differing sample projects that led to large-scale community transformation. The Chattanooga Venture involved a group of 50 citizens deliberating more than 20 weeks in 1984 over the problems and issues confronting Chattanooga, Tennessee. They identified a set of priorities and solutions such as a shelter for abused women and encouraged a variety of organizations such as neighborhood associations and nonprofit organizations to reach their goals. By the early 1990s, they had accomplished most of their goals. Similarly, a group of 30 community volunteers organized a series of neighborhood forums to discuss health care rationing in Oregon during the early 1980s. Over the next decade, they convened hundreds of forums over this issue with the state ultimately adopting this process using the Health Services Commission, which was developed in 1990. In 1991, the commission used these forums to develop a list of health care priorities. Finally, the Cupertino Project developed by the Public Dialogue Consortium hosted a series of meetings focusing on the issue of cultural richness and community safety in Cupertino, California. The project began in 1996 with a series of focus groups, followed by a town-hall meeting, and a 2½-day training and deliberation with citizens. The project led to a number of initiatives, including a consortium of concerned citizens who work with cultural issues in the city (Spano, 2001) and the development of dialogue programs in the schools (Pearce & Pearce, 2001). The case studies that examine the relationship between public participation and dialogue and community transformation tended to highlight new policies and programs that were developed and lessons learned from the process (Ryfe, 2002).

Challenges to dialogical democratic practice. Several different challenges exist for individuals, groups, and organizations that wish to foster democratic practice through public participation and dialogue. First, representation becomes a dilemma to be managed during the process. The issue of representation becomes important given that certain types of citizens are more likely to engage in public participation and dialogue than others. The research on antecedents of participation and dialogue documents who participated in public conversations about community issues but neglects the issue of who should participate. Ryfe (2002) pointed out that most organizations that foster deliberation and organization addressed the issue of representation by allowing individuals and groups to self-select. The question becomes whether self-selected individuals or groups are representative of the various stakeholder groups within a community. If we presume that fair representation is accomplished by having those people and groups that have a stake in the issue participate, using self-selection as a way of including people and groups in dialogue may have the effect of underrepresenting the diverse set of interests that constitutes a community.

As a result, some deliberative organizations and processes such as Fishkin’s (1995) deliberative polling emphasize the importance of constructing a representative sample of those individuals and groups from within a community to participate in public dialogues. Constructing a representative sample for deliberative activities may lessen the impact of “interest capture,” which is a function of who gets invited to participate in the consultation process (Harrison, Munton, & Collins, 2004). McKinney and Harmon (2002) noted that citizens frequently complained that economic interests captured public participation exercises because the term stakeholder was narrowly conceptualized as persons or groups who had an economic interest in the issue. As a result, Harrison et al. (2004) suggested that better public participation could be gained by setting “out criteria for inclusion, how representative groups are, systematic feedback mechanisms, and outcome targets” (p. 915). Still, it may be difficult and unrealistic to create fair representation given the large number of persons who have a stake in the issue (Rowe et al., 2004). While this may be managed by designing public participation and dialogue exercises that have breakout sessions or having follow-up conferences that involve the different stakeholders, representativeness may not be possible, thus limiting the democratic flavor of the process.

The concern over representation is directly tied to the second issue, maintaining fairness in the process. The ability to create a fair process has implications for the acceptance of the suggested policy outcomes by stakeholders (Rowe & Frewer, 2000) as well as their ability to collaborate in the future (Tuler & Webler, 1999). From a communication perspective, fairness focuses our attention on the process criteria used to evaluate public participation and dialogue processes. Renn, Webler, and Wiedemann (1995) articulated a model that assessed the quality of discourse in terms of the fairness and competence of the process. They called this a normative theory of public participation that was based on Habermas’s (1984) notions regarding the ideal speech situation and communicative competence. They suggested that two meta-principles, fairness and competence, can be used to assess the quality of discourse. The fairness meta-principle “refers to the opportunity for all interested or affected parties to assume any legitimate role in the decision-making process” (Webler & Tuler, 2000, p. 568). This means stakeholders are engaged and present during the process, able to initiate discourse by making statements; take part in the discussion by asking for clarification as well as challenging, answering, and arguing about the information; and participate in decision making. The way they conceptualized the fairness meta-principle closely corresponded to Smith and McDonough’s (2001) research that solicited participant perceptions of the fairness of public participation experiences. Smith and McDonough found that citizen evaluations of fairness involved ensuring representativeness so that broad involvement by stakeholders was encouraged, facilitating stakeholder voice and participation in decision making, and the displaying of consideration to citizens and citizen groups by agencies genuinely hearing and responding to their viewpoints and concerns.

Competence “refers to the ability of the process to reach the best decision possible given what was recently knowable under the present conditions” (Webler & Tuler, 2000, p. 568). This means that all participants should have access to information and its interpretations and that stakeholders use the best available procedures for knowledge selection. Rowe and Frewer (2000) offered a similar view of competence by arguing that good process must include resource accessibility (representatives have the necessary resources to complete their task), task definition (the range of task activities is clearly defined), and structured decision making (appropriate tools and techniques are used that facilitate and display the decision-making process). In two studies, Tuler and Webler (1999) and Webler and Tuler (2000) found that the theoretically derived categories from Habermas partially matched the criteria that citizens use to evaluate the quality of the discourse.

The central dilemma for public participation and dialogue practitioners is how to manage competing concerns and trade-offs among differing process criteria when designing a process. Abelson et al. (2003) argued that tradeoffs among competing goals are inevitable:

For example, emphasis on the design of procedurally fair and legitimate processes that provide opportunities for meaningful involvement, shared learning and the consideration of a range of views—the pillars of deliberative methods—are, by design, exclusive processes that involve only a small group of citizens. Furthermore, the outcomes (i.e., decisions) may not be held accountable to or by the broader community. (p. 245)

In order to achieve competence through rigorous deliberation, the goal of achieving fairness as marked by representativeness may be sacrificed, which could lead to lower acceptance of decisions by the larger community. The challenge for public participation and dialogue practitioners is to create public conversations that honor the democratic commitments to representativeness and voice. Addressing this challenge is difficult because even if practitioners consciously design processes that are representative and fair, factors such as different levels of expertise may still diminish the performance of democratic process. For example, Campbell and Marshall (2000) suggested that it is important to design processes that honor all voices by valuing nonexpert sentiments as much as expert analyses. Abelson et al. (2003) observed, however, that even with involvement by citizens in selecting experts and information to participate in the process, they still defer to the knowledge of the “experts” because they do not have the theoretical background to make decisions. Even though the process honored the democratic commitment to ensure that all voices are heard, power differences could not be overcome.

Third, public participation and dialogue practitioners need to guard against a bias toward action and creating deliverables. Ryfe (2002) suggested two different modes of deliberation exist—rational and relational. Rational deliberation emphasized the marshalling of evidence, the construction of arguments, and the manufacturing of counterarguments. Relational deliberation stressed emotion and relationship building during deliberation. Relational deliberation emphasizes “equality, respect for difference, participation, and community” (p. 360). This same distinction can be seen in the dialogue literature that differentiates between dialogue as a form of collective thinking as reflected in the work by David Bohm (1990) and the MIT Dialogue Project (Isaacs, 1999; Senge, 1990) and dialogue as a form of relational practice reflected in the work of Bakhtin (Bakhtin, 1981,1929/1984, 1986, 1993; Barge & Little, 2002) and Buber (Buber, 1958; Pearce & Pearce, 2000). Ryfe (2002) observed that as deliberative organizations stressed outcomes, they emphasized more rational than relational forms of deliberation. This is not surprising as the discourse of citizens and funders of public participation and dialogue projects is concerned about the “deliverables”; talk that leads to action is more highly valued than talk without direct policy implications. The assumption is that talk that leads to relationship building does not generate concrete action in the form of deliverables such as new plans, programs, and projects.

This duality is problematic, however, because dialogue is a systemic practice, which necessitates that we examine how rationality and emotionality intersect at particular moments in time. It is nonsensical to say that a particular conversation is either rational or emotional; it is both simultaneously, and the issue is how this tension is managed (Barge & Little, 2002). Wenger (1998) concurred, suggesting that such oppositions are not separate, but function as an interacting duality where each defines the other. This requires public participation and dialogue practitioners to determine how best to manage the need for rationality and the expression of emotionality within participation and dialogue exercises. Rather than view rationality and emotionality in a fragmented way, it is important for practitioners to view public participation and dialogue practices holistically and determine how best to manage the connection between rationality and emotionality at different moments during the interaction.

Appreciative Inquiry

The community-building literature recently has emphasized the importance of an asset-based approach to community development and the power of affirmative linguistic practice. Mathie and Cunningham (2003) suggested that the traditional language of community building has been needs based, which places great emphasis on articulating the needs of a community, identifying its deficits or problems, and then proposing solutions to meet those needs. From their perspective, the needs-based approach has generated three negative consequences. First, needs-based approaches denigrate the community. In order to locate the needed resources to solve the community’s problems, community leaders must portray the community’s problems as severe and its members as incapable of solving them. Second, community members begin to believe their leader’s rhetoric, and as a result, feel disempowered and unable to act. They no longer view themselves as citizens who have agency to improve their condition, but become clients who depend on outside groups to provide them services. Third, community members and leaders focus their energy on working with groups and institutions outside their community to help solve their problems as opposed to key stakeholders within their community. Intra-community links become weakened.

Asset-based community development shifts from an approach grounded in deficit language to affirmative linguistic practice. Barge (2001) observed that community builders who operate from an asset-based approach work are committed to affirmative linguistic practice. Affirmative linguistic practice emphasizes the importance of community members articulating assets, possibilities, and resources as opposed to deficits, constraints, and problems. Affirmative linguistic practice starts by examining what works well within a community and invites community members to bring into language their community’s assets, capacities, and strengths. The language of affirmation and assets moves citizens toward articulating and creating resources that give life and energy to the community. Several researchers have suggested that affirmative linguistic practice fosters hope and possibility within communities and expands their capacity for managing community conflicts, disputes, and problems (Barge, 2003; Ludema, 2000; Ludema, Wilmot, & Srivastva, 1997). A dominant asset-based community development approach that emerged in the mid-1980s, which emphasized affirmative linguistic practice and dialogue, was appreciative inquiry.

Appreciative inquiry, dialogue, and democratic practice. Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a social constructionist perspective toward community development that emphasizes the positive core of community life. AI differs from other social constructionist approaches with its emphasis on creating a positive linguistic universe that crowds out the negative stories, enabling community members to carry the best parts about the past into the future. AI practitioners believe that in every living system there are moments and areas of excellence, and these areas of excellence serve as the basis for creating possible futures (Zemke, 1999). Community development should be based on “recognizing the best in people or the world around us; affirming past and present strengths, successes, and potentials; [and] to perceive those things that give life (health, vitality, excellence) to living systems” (Cooperrider, 1998, p. 3). AI provides a grounded basis for community transformation by starting with embodied moments of excellence that have actually been performed within the community. Since such moments are indeed possible, as they have been performed in the past, the question becomes how particular moments of excellence can be re-created and elaborated within the community. For example, when community members are in conflict with one another, focusing on times when they have collaborated well can serve as the basis for transforming the conflict (Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999).

The 4-D model has been developed as a conversational structure to shape the type and progression of communication toward creating the future and is frequently used in community settings (Browne, 1998; Foster, 1998; Pinto & Curran, 1998; Stewart & Royal, 1998). The 4-D model organizes appreciative conversations according to a four-stage process:

  • Discover: Community members appreciate and value the best of “what is.” Appreciative interviews are conducted with community members centering on and valuing the positive core of community life—the best of what is in the community—by focusing on moments of excellence, high points, core values, proud moments, and life-giving forces.
  • Dream: Community members envision “what might be.” Provocative propositions or affirmative statements that simultaneously describe the present as well as an idealized future are generated from the interview data.
  • Dialogue: Community members discuss “what should be.” Community members talk about what should occur within their community in light of the information gained from the appreciative interviews and provocative propositions.
  • Destiny: Community members determine “what will be” by deliberating on what next steps need to be taken to create the kind of desired future that is articulated in the provocative propositions.

Powley et al. (2004) contended AI is a democratic process (also see Ludema, Whitney, Mohr, & Griffin, 2003). In their study of dialogical democracy in organization, they argued that the AI Summit, which is based on the 4-D model, represented one form of dialogical democracy. The AI Summit brings together stakeholders from across differing levels of the organization and creates a setting in which each has voice. The summit allows people to engage in dialogue about key issues within the organization, deliberate on possible solutions, and determine future policy actions. Unlike traditional command and control structures within organizations, the AI Summit equalizes power among participants and gives them the space to have voice. Though articulated in an organizational context, the same democratic principles that inform the AI Summit also inform the way AI is used in community settings. For example, Bliss Browne’s pioneering work in Imagine Chicago, an international community-building initiative designed to foster the economic imagination of citizens, reflects the same democratic principles of equality, voice, and affirmation that are emphasized in the AI Summit (Barge, 2003).

Challenges to dialogical democracy. The underpinnings of AI are democratic with an emphasis on including all relevant stakeholders in the dialogue and honoring their voices. The challenge to democratic practice in AI is what to do with voices that are nonappreciative, hostile, or critical. AI explicitly adopts the “Positive Principle,” which emphasizes the need to create a “positive outlook” by inquiring into the hopes, dreams, moments of excellence, high points, inspirational moments, and best practices of communities (Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999; Hammond, 1998; Hammond & Royal, 1998). Some practitioners and theorists contend that potentially “negative” stories or life-draining experiences should not be discussed during AI, given the “positive” focus of the approach (see Kelm, 1998). As a result, being appreciative in dialogue has become associated with being positive, which has meant that voices of vulnerability, critique, hurt, shame, and anger are often dismissed. Barge and Oliver (2003) observed that the silencing of certain voices in the dialogue simultaneously prohibits particular forms of emotionality and rationality from entering the conversation.

Excising particular voices from dialogue and their attendant emotionalities and rationalities is problematic in two ways. First, excluding particular voices from the dialogue, even with the best of intentions, goes against democratic practice. If democracy is rooted in citizen participation and hearing all the voices, then differing voices, including those that are “negative,” must be honored. The challenge, of course, is to work with those voices in such a way that fosters forward movement within a community as opposed to creating roadblocks and generating a sense of stuckness. Second, the adaptability of the community is decreased when particular points of view and emotionalities are not given voice. One of the reasons that democratic practice works well is that by hearing all the voices, alternatives can be rigorously assessed and new ideas be generated. Similar to the literature in group decision making, hearing conflicting, opposing, and minority views leads to the enhanced evaluation of alternatives and the generation of creative innovative alternatives (Janis, 1989). Similarly, from a communication perspective, if a human system’s ability to adapt to complex situations depends on the system’s ability to construct more complex forms of communication (Weick, 1995), then engaging in more monologic forms of communication that limit the kinds of voices and emotionalities that can be expressed, as opposed to engaging in dialogue with its emphasis on multivocality, diminishes the capacity of the human system to adapt. AI’s emphasis on positive language contains the possibility of excluding particular voices from the democratic process, which, in turn, can limit a community’s ability to manage conflicts.

Future Directions and Practical Applications

The centrality of dialogic communication for managing community conflicts and fostering democracy is clear. Through dialogic communication, citizens are able to listen to one another’s positions and interests deeply and to work collaboratively in ways that address a community’s conflicts and disputes. Dialogic communication’s emphasis on inclusivity, being responsive to the needs of self and other, hearing all the voices in a dispute, and giving stakeholders a chance to determine their own destiny reflects participative democracy’s impulse to engage citizens in decision making over issues that matter most to them. Dialogue, conflict management, and democracy are interwoven practices where each influences how the other is performed.

While each approach to dialogue reviewed in this chapter is unique and invites differing research opportunities, I would like to highlight cross-cutting areas for possible research and practice. Stewart, Zediker, and Black (2004) observed that even though dialogue emanates from several different philosophical bases, all approaches to dialogue share two underlying themes. First, dialogue is systemic, meaning that theorists and researchers approach communication holistically. Rather than emphasizing fragmentation, dialogue theorists and researchers are concerned with exploring the relationships among different parts within a human linguistic system. Second, dialogue is a tensional practice. Stewart et al. (2004) argued that dialogue is marked by tensionality, “the sense that the whole… is marked by both a complementary and contradictory quality that renders it inherently fluid and dynamic” (p. 27). What this suggests is that one way to articulate future research areas is by identifying the tensions that constitute dialogical processes and distinguishing those conversational moves that manage them. Though the contexts for dialogue and the strategies that citizens and practitioners use for managing tensions may vary, the tensions associated with the process of dialogical communication should remain relatively stable.

Dialogical communication involves persons managing a variety of tensions such as who to include or exclude in the dialogue, what conversational topics to foreground or background, what elements of the system to connect or separate, and whether to deliberate over ideational issues or develop relationships. Given the current research, I suggest that there are at least three tensions that dialogue researchers and practitioners should address in future research and practice: (a) inclusion-exclusion, (b) deliberative-relational, and (c) micro-macro practices. I begin by highlighting the importance of these tensions for academic research and conclude by articulating one approach that may assist practitioners in managing these tensions.


One area for future research regards how to manage inclusion-exclusion within dialogical practice—who is invited and not invited to participate in the conversation. The tension of inclusion-exclusion emerges across the different approaches as community mediation wrestles with the issue of what role the state plays in the mediation process, public participation and dialogue grapples with the issue of representation, and AI struggles with the appropriateness of enabling positive voices while limiting negative voices. Future research needs to give attention more closely to how participation is managed given various economic, time, and social pressures and how various forms of participation generate different kinds of outcomes. Moreover, most studies take participation as a constant where the same group of individuals who began the dialogue process remains until it is finished. However, during long-term community projects citizens and various stakeholder groups migrate in and out of the dialogue. This suggests that future research should also explore how transitions within dialogical communication are negotiated and performed when existing voices exit and new voices enter the process.


There is a distinction in the literature between deliberative and relational forms of dialogue with the former emphasizing collective thinking and the latter focusing on relational processes. However, dialogical processes are infused with both deliberative and relational flavors; they co-occur within dialogical communication. As a result, future research needs to focus on the interconnection between deliberative and relational aspects of dialogue. When do forms of deliberative practice facilitate or harm relational development? When do the relational aspects of dialogue add to or detract from its deliberative elements? For example, one criticism that has been leveled against AI is that it silences voices of dissent in order to build positive relationships. Yet, as Golembiewski (1998) argued, the inability to focus on deficits and problems may limit people’s ability to fully grasp a situation and deliberate over future actions.

The tension between deliberative and relational forms of dialogue also occurs when assessing the outcomes of dialogue. Deliberative forms of dialogue tend to be assessed by task outcomes such as enhanced citizen knowledge, information processing, and participation in political activities while relational forms of dialogue tend to be marked by relational outcomes such as the ability for future collaboration. Most dialogue studies appear to emphasize task versus relational outcomes. For example, the dominant outcome variable for evaluating community mediation is whether disputants reach agreement. In public participation and dialogue as well as AI research, the typical assessed outcomes for judgments regarding effectiveness are the development of new policies and programs. These typical outcomes reflect the consequences of effective deliberation; for example, we have reached an agreement on the best way to move forward. What is neglected in most studies is the assessment of dialogical communication processes on relational outcomes. This neglect of relational outcomes is ironic given that Hackman (1990) contended that one key criterion for evaluating decision-making effectiveness is the ability of group members to work collaboratively in the future. Particularly in the case of intractable moral conflicts where agreement on an issue may never be reached, it would be appropriate to include the ability for future collaboration as a key relational outcome. As a result, future research needs to track simultaneously both the task and relational consequences generated by dialogue and how dialogue constitutes task and relational outcomes and their interrelationship.

Macro-Micro Levels of Practice

Most of the research on dialogue has occurred at a macro-level, in the form of articulating dialogue models that can be used to structure public meetings and deliberations. Little research has explored episodes of dialogical communication with an emphasis on the message-by-message generation of dialogue. As Pearce and Pearce (2000) observed, little research has examined the texts of dialogue because few texts are available. For dialogue practitioners, it is important to achieve a consistency between the macro-design of a dialogue event and the actual communication that constitutes it. We need to have a better understanding of the connection between macro-structures, the conversational architectures that guide how we structure dialogue episodes, and the micropractices of dialogue. For example, there is good evidence that participating in National Issues Forums leads to good individual outcomes such as enhanced topic knowledge and the ability to make more sophisticated political judgments (Gastil & Dillard, 1999a, 1999b). However, we know very little about what specific micro-processes in the forums lead to greater knowledge and sophistication about political issues. Moreover, we know very little about how these micro-processes lead to larger macro-outcomes such as community transformation. In order to understand the dynamics of micro- and macropractices in dialogue, we need to develop research projects that look at the connections among macro- and micropractices and their relationship to individual and community outcomes.

Managing the Tensions

Viewing dialogue as a tension-filled process also has implications for dialogue practitioners concerned with managing community disputes and fostering democracy. As Ashcraft and Trethewey (2004) argued, the process of managing tensions is ongoing; tensions are never completely resolved, they can only be managed as communication unfolds. Moreover, given the uniqueness of situations, practitioners not only must be able to discern the unique tensions constituting the situation, but also make practical judgments of how best to foster dialogue in light of those tensions, whether it is in community mediation centers, citizens’ forums, or AI Summits. Though several different models for fostering dialogical processes have been created, such as the NIF (Gastil & Dillard, 1999a, 1999b), the SHEDD model (Pearce & Pearce, 2001), and the AI Summit (Powley et al., 2004), preexisting models for fostering dialogue cannot simply be applied in a wholesale fashion to situations. Rather, practitioners need to make judgments of how best to adapt, alter, and modify their model of dialogical communication to the particulars of situations. This may mean altering the dominant model that they use to create dialogue, such as making minor modifications to the sequence of phases in the SHEDD model, or finding ways to blend differing models such as the SHEDD model with AI. Practitioners find themselves constantly tacking between the principles that inform their practice and the models they use to foster dialogue and the unique particulars of situations.

Consider the following two examples that illustrate how practitioners tack back and forth between their principles and the dialogue models they employ. First, dialogue practitioners must make situated judgments about how best to implement a particular model within specific situations. For example, we know that culture has the potential to influence and alter our patterns of communication and that practitioners should take into account the importance of culture when designing dialogical forums. Nevertheless, most empirical studies of public participation and AI diminish the role that culture plays in the design and implementation of dialogical forums. For example, in the public participation literature, most research examines how public participation occurs within a specific country or region and is more concerned with explaining how a particular process works as opposed to exploring how the culture influences the design of the process or drawing critical cross-cultural comparisons and the resulting implications for practice (e.g., Alfasi, 2003; Aprioku, 1998; Rogers, 2003; Smith & Vawda, 2003; Tabara, Sauri, & Cerdan, 2003; Vari, 2002; Vasconcelos, Hamilton, & Barrett, 2000; Wiseman, Mooney, Berry, & Tang, 2003). Nevertheless, practitioners need to take into account how the specific model they employ may be adapted to the unique cultural constraints within a given situation. For example, Barge, Lee, Maddux, Nabring, and Townsend (2004) examined how dialogical communication was structured in a change process that was designed to elaborate the information technology infrastructure at tribal colleges and universities and elaborate Native Americans’ technological capacity. Operating from an appreciative perspective, the process designers faced the following question: “What does it mean to act appreciatively within a Native American cultural context?” One of the responses they developed was to open each event with a Native American ceremony or prayer to affirm Indian people’s values and beliefs. The particular response they created was not described in any of the existing literature; rather, it emerged from being committed to the importance of fostering appreciation and drawing on the resources of the culture to create an opening for meetings that was appreciative and culturally appropriate.

Second, dialogue practitioners may need to make situated judgments about how best to blend differing dialogue models within specific situations. Assume that you are a dialogical practitioner who is committed to the principles of inclusivity (hearing all the voices), authenticity (people should be transparent in their communication), and ownership (people should feel that they are able to shape the process). When you facilitate dialogue processes in school settings, you normally use the SHEDD model. However, you sense from the participants in the school that you currently are working with that many key stakeholders—students, parents, and teachers—do not feel that their voices are being heard. As a result, you feel that when it comes to the phase of “Deliberating the Options,” you need to do more than simply have the facilitator present the action scenarios and begin deliberation. Instead, you borrow from the NIF process and create an issues booklet that summarizes three different solutions to the problem, each emphasizing a different voice, such as the student, parent, or teacher. Your intent is to facilitate the participants’ taking differing voices into account during their deliberation. However, as the deliberation phase unfolds, you sense that new issues and voices are emerging in the conversation that you had not planned for. You then decide to honor these voices by doing an impromptu version of open space to make sure these issues and voices are heard (Owen, 1997). You have participants volunteer to lead small group discussions on an issue that they find to be important. At the close of the small group discussions, each facilitator reports back to the entire group on their recommendations. Even though the dialogic practitioner began with the SHEDD model, the practitioner integrated other elements such as issues booklets and open space from other models in order to ensure that all voices were heard and respected. In so doing, the practitioner honored the commitments of inclusivity and ownership while modifying the model given the particulars of the situation.

Practitioners, as a result, need to develop the ability to make wise choices in situations for the best way to foster dialogue and democratic process. There is a growing literature that emphasizes the importance of practitioners being reflective (Schon, 1983, 1987) or deliberative (Forester, 1999), which means they must be able to make situated judgments about how best to move the conversation among stakeholders forward. Barge (2003) contended that practitioners develop sensibilities that allow them to make situated judgments regarding how to act within a conversation and manage competing tensions. Sensibilities are the moral-aesthetic commitments practitioners make regarding how best to work with human systems made up of multiple stakeholders. In a sense, they are guiding principles or sensitizing concepts that practitioners rely on when they make judgments about how to structure dialogue. They are moral in the sense that they point to what practitioners should give attention to when they make decisions, and they are aesthetic in the sense that they inform what the practitioner views as beautiful or elegant practice. Barge (2003) argued community-building practitioners should cultivate four sensibilities that allow them to make wise choices:

  • Affirmative sensibility: A sensibility for what generates life and needs to be appreciated in the moment. Community builders should develop communication frameworks that notice and inquire into the life-generating moments of excellence within community life.
  • Relational sensibility: A sensibility for the unique historical and social circumstances that have informed this moment in community life and how people, situations, and actions fit together. Rather than view a community as a set of independent parts, community builders need to engage communities as systems of persons-in-conversations that have a history and share possible futures.
  • Generative sensibility: A sensibility for creating transformation within a community through practical action. Community programs and interventions should emphasize an action orientation that builds the capacity of individuals and institutions to develop initiatives and actions for creating change.
  • Imaginative sensibility: A sensibility for creating programs and interventions that are fun, novel, and engaging. Community transformation depends on capturing the imagination of participants, which involves creating events that inspire one’s imaginative abilities. (p. 79)

These sensibilities are particularly helpful for dialogical practitioners. Practitioners are always making choices of how to manage participation in dialogue, how to deal with the sometimes opposing demands of deliberation and relational management, and how to ensure a coherency between the macro- and micro-structures that constitute dialogic practice. The way these tensions show themselves in differing situations will vary, and if practitioners wish to maintain a coherency in their practice within and across dialogical episodes, they need to make wise choices that reflect their sensibilities. Do the decisions I make to structure the conversation in this way take into account the unique socio-historical contexts we are acting from? Is the choice I am making likely to generate life and transformation? Will my judgment enable persons to act with agency and become engaged in and inspired by the process? The specific ways that practitioners structure dialogical communication to manage conflict and foster democracy will be unique to the emerging situation, but they will be grounded in a set of commitments that cut across differing contexts.

These four sensibilities are offered for their heuristic value and should not be considered as definitive or exhaustive. Rather, the point I wish to make is that it is critical for practitioners to articulate their sensibility toward dialogic practice. Their sensibility provides a way for them to reflect on the appropriateness of particular ways of structuring the conversation when making decisions and also provides a way to ensure coherency within their practice. Even though the specific way they engage and structure dialogical communication will be uniquely tailored to the uniqueness of the situation, there should be a sense of “family resemblance” (Wittgenstein, 1953) regarding their practice within and across dialogical episodes, which can be traced to their sensibility toward dialogue. From an academic perspective, future research needs to explore the kinds of dialogical sensibilities that practitioners develop to guide their practice.

A Beginning and an Ending

Mikhail Bakhtin (1929/1984) observed, “The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human life is the open-ended dialogue. Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue” (p. 293). Dialogue is a continually emerging phenomenon that never ends, with each utterance simultaneously being a response to what has transpired previously and an invitation to take the conversation in a new direction. The focus of this chapter has been to highlight the intersections among democratic practice, dialogue, conflict, and community. As a result, this chapter is partially a response to what has transpired previously in deliberative democracy, community mediation, public participation and dialogue, and appreciative inquiry. It draws together seemingly disparate approaches to dialogue and articulates some of the common tensions that merit the attention of dialogic theorists and practitioners: (a) inclusion-exclusion, (b) deliberative-relational, and (c) micro-macro levels of practice. The chapter concludes by inviting readers to think about the role that tension management and sensibility play in persons’ ability to create and sustain dialogue. The hope is that the concepts of tension management and sensibility may help us elaborate our conversation about dialogue in useful ways.

Dialogue is crucial to our ability to work through our disputes and conflicts and build a healthy democracy. As Mathews (1994) argued,

New thinking concentrates on bringing together all the parts of a community, in all of their differences. Creating a majority is not enough. No one today has made this point better than Mary Parker Follett: “Our rate of progress… depend[s] upon our understanding that man… gets… power through his capacity to join with others to form a real whole, a living group. Give your difference, welcome my difference, unify all difference in the larger whole, such is the law of growth.” (p. 146)

Dialogue represents a form of communicative practice that helps us surface and manage our differences constructively and form a democratic society. When we honor the voices of different stakeholders, we learn from another, and this learning allows us to grow our collective capacity to collaborate and work together.