The Dialogue/Action Dilemma

This entry was contributed by on December 24th, 2014 at 8:00 am and is filed under , .
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Over the years I have been involved with a number of deliberative dialogues in both the community and on campus. It is also a subject about which I teach and write. Since the purpose of this blog is to share our experiences and to learn from each other, I thought I would write about one of the biggest challenges I have encountered in doing dialogue work – it is what I call “The Dialogue/Action Dilemma.” Recent efforts at my university to engage students, faculty and administrators in dialogues about campus climate have raised again the issue for me.

Here is the dilemma as I have experienced it.

In theory, the purpose for having deliberative dialogue is to help communities address problems that require buy-in from diverse groups and that seem unresolvable through traditional means. All of the deliberative dialogue models that I have worked with conclude with discussion of ideas for action. The National Issues Forum model, which I have used most often with students and on campus, ends the discussion with consideration of where there is “common ground for action” and the generation of ideas for addressing the issue that has been deliberated. The Study Circles Model, which we used in our community a decade ago to generate dialogue and ideas for action on the achievement gap in the public schools, has a more robust “action” component, devoting one full meeting to action ideas and encouraging the formation of ongoing action teams around key ideas once the dialogue ends.

In practice, getting to action is very difficult. Many members of a community are willing to spend an evening talking about an issue they care about (or even 4 evenings, as we did with our study circles), but getting that commitment to stay involved through the fleshing out and implementation of action ideas is more challenging. In reflecting on the difficulty of moving to action I have identified a number of barriers to this very important step:

  • The time constraints on people’s lives, particularly work and family.
  • The lack of willingness of people in positions of power to “take the advice” of community groups.
  • A perception by deliberators that they themselves have no power over the situation (or what we call in political science a lack of “internal efficacy.”)
  • The lack of capacity (because of budget constraints, a lack of staff and other human resources) of individuals or groups that organize the deliberation to provide the ongoing infrastructure for managing change over time.
  • The existence of activists on the issue who are “tired of talking,” who consequently don’t participate in the dialogue, but who subsequently resist action ideas generated in the deliberation.

I believe there is value in dialogue for its own sake. In particular, when done well, it can build understanding among people with diverse points of view about an issue. And who would argue today that building that kind of understanding isn’t a good in its own right? But in the end, if dialogue does not eventually lead to action of some sort, cynicism or hopelessness can be the result. With good planning and coalition building on the front end I have seen dialogues lead to positive change. But I have also seen them flounder on the shoals of good intentions but poor planning or outright resistance from the traditional power structure. What have you found to be the biggest barriers to productive dialogue in your communities? How have you overcome these barriers? Are we asking too much for dialogue to lead to action? Is there value in the process of dialogue itself even if no identifiable action comes from it? I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas.


4 Responses to “The Dialogue/Action Dilemma”

  1. Cate Elander

    “The existence of activists on the issue who are ‘tired of talking,’ who consequently don’t participate in the dialogue, but who subsequently resist action ideas generated in the deliberation.”

    This dilemma rings very true to me. Depending on the topic, I can be very tired of talking, and feel high levels of frustration and cynicism when the talk does not lead anywhere aside from a report in a desk drawer or in an attached document deep in an inbox. Even more frustrating is the realization that the talk was heard by folks who had already made up their minds about what needed to be done. This frustration has definitely led to occasional reticence to participate, and suspicion of the ideas generated in such discussions.

    On the other hand, I am also much more likely to join a conversation about a possible idea or plan with great enthusiasm, but lack the required follow-through that leads to improvement or change, due mostly to the barriers listed in the blog post above.

    This particular dilemma makes me wonder about the very nature of how we make plans and make changes, particularly with communities or particular groups of people who have been subject to much talk, little action, or perhaps more true, the wrong kind of action. Could there be a shift to a more fluid, interactive process of gaining feedback and making change? Instead of focus groups, for example, how could we integrate the input from citizens, students, clients, etc., into our work and into our lives more frequently, and more meaningfully?

    I’ve been considering what this means for my own work, and would love others perspectives on how this could be done in a way that reduces the reticence to participate.

  2. Brian Bowman

    You make some salient points, Katy, to which every nonprofit, government, and even houses of worship can relate. Similar personalities seem to emerge no matter what the context of the discussion is.

    Because human nature interjects itself into every discussion, we should be cognizant of traits that are always present: emotion and a feeling of ownership. We may not like to admit it, but if we have an emotional connection to a problem or solution we will find a way to succeed. The car companies figured this out long ago; they sell an image, not transportation. It’s not our role to manipulate emotion, of course, but we should always be aware of its influence.

    We can have an effect on feelings of ownership. People who feel that they’re not being heard or are wasting their time are likely to be ineffective. As you mentioned, they’re likely to go along with the group, then resist its efforts later. Perhaps our role is help all parties see that their insights are valuable within the context of the group. If a person feels ownership in the process, s/he is more likely to connect.

    The challenge is in making stakeholders feel this sense of ownership as well as the emotional connection to an issue or project. I’d love to hear the collective knowledge of readers who have insight into this discussion.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, and good luck.

    • Emily Edmonds

      Wonderful points about the perils and pitfalls of dialogue as we all know it.
      In reading this post, as well as learning more about the problems in Northwest Durham and some of our other colleagues’ experiences, reminds me that often it is not just about ownership but about time. Brian’s points, above, are clear – stakeholders must be just as invested, which is hard after years of making sounds in the forest that no one seems to hear. It can be hard to believe that change might actually come around this time.
      But even surpassing the ownership question, there is a deeper one that gets to the heart of what may be the biggest barrier to local governments’ successful engagement of citizen communities: time. Owning a project for a few months, or even a few years, isn’t really that long in the life of a resident. Local government support – often, the only “capacity” to get things done in a town or county – typically changes with every election, especially in partisan-election local governments. Department heads are changed, attorneys are changed, funding structures are rearranged. This seems to be one of the biggest problems we face: not just owning the projects we’re trying to create, but finding long-term ownership within the organizations who are tasked with providing the capacity to keep them going.

  3. Katy Harriger

    Thanks for all of your thoughts. I’ve been trying to think about how to “institutionalize” dialogue as an approach to decision making, so that some of the barriers we have identified can be reduced if not eliminated (time, sustained commitment, follow through to action). One challenge for Institutionalization is the importance of the organizers being trusted as neutral brokers – that is, a group that hasn’t already made up its mind and is now just trying to get public buy-in after the fact. In my experience elected officials in particular are very reluctant to risk a dialogue process where they don’t know the outcome and funders are reluctant to provide sustained support for non-governmental groups trying to do this work.


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