The Art of Disagreeing Well: Embracing the Messiness through Public Deliberation

The Art of Disagreeing Well: Embracing the Messiness through Public Deliberation

Erin Payseur

Associate Director, Civic Learning Initiatives, Office of Community Engagement & Service, Baylor University

Controversy with Civility Series

Part 1: Embracing the Messiness

In my last post, I introduced this series on how we can disagree well with each other. Let’s face it. Sometimes we need some tools, resources, and processes to guide our conversations and provide a framework in which the messy conversations can happen. When we want to talk about sensitive and controversial issues, we need to de-escalate the emotion and provide a safe space in which we can value different perspectives, let down our defensiveness, and work together across difference.

In Part 1 of this series, Embracing the Messiness, I plan to highlight some of the favorite tools in my practitioner toolbox. I’ll share about some promising frameworks that can help us move from fearing the difficult conversations to embracing the messiness of disagreement in a way that allows us to move forward together. There are different tools for different situations. The more tools we have in our toolbox, the more likely that we will have the right tool for the right situation.

Public Deliberation

Public Deliberation is one of my favorite approaches for working through policy issues. The deliberative process brings people together to sort through three or four different research-based perspectives on a given issue with the goal of understanding each perspective and its values, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each. It is easy to focus on the benefits of our own viewpoint and minimize the values of others. This structured process ensures that we hear and understand multiple perspectives and recognizes the need to balance individual and community needs. It is a process undergirded with the recognition that there are often competing positive values that require us to make tough choices between multiple legitimate options.

This past academic year, my campus hosted our first two deliberative forums, one on immigration and one of the changing role of higher education. Using issue guides from the National Issues Forum, facilitators guided students through a structured discussion of differing viewpoints. Each perspective was given equal time and equal respect. Regardless of their personal opinion, participants spent time understanding each one, discussing the values inherent in that perspective, as well as its potential benefits and trade-offs.

For immigration, for example, participants deliberated through three options: welcoming new arrivals, securing the border, or promoting economic prosperity (admitting immigrants based on economic needs & factors). Not only did a vast majority of participants leave thinking differently about the issue, they also were able to begin identifying potential common ground. In recognizing the value of different perspectives, they were able to recognize the need to balance competing positive goods and to look for potential ways forward together, balancing economic interests with humanitarian responsibility and national security.

When there are important policy decisions to be made, public deliberation is a useful framework for exploring those policy alternatives and bringing other diverse perspectives to the table. Campus carry is a hot topic in my state currently. Public deliberation can be a useful framework in addressing a topic like campus carry and to shift the conversation away from gun rights or gun control to a more productive, informed, and deliberative conversation. We do not have to silence either of those viewpoints but rather can intentionally bring advocates of both of those to the table.

Public deliberation gives us a framework that allows us to explore the implications of those, understand different options, and discover common values and common ground that moves us forward together in community. Instead of silencing the controversy, we can embrace the messiness to make it a productive growth process for all involved.

For a valuable primer to the deliberative practice & process, I highly recommend Carcasson & Sprain’s article (2010) on the key aspects of the deliberative democracy movement. This article highlights the core principles of public deliberation including the roles & processes that guide a forum, as well as potential impacts and implications.

Public Deliberation Overview

Useful for: Policy discussions (e.g. campus carry, immigration, healthcare)

Audience: Diverse & inclusive group representative of population

Goals/ student learning outcomes: (Carcasson, 2010)

  • Awareness & understanding of issues
  • Improved democratic attitudes
  • Improved democratic skills
  • Improved community action
  • Improved institutional decision-making
  • Improved community problem-solving

To get started: Browse issue & facilitator guides available through the National Issues Forum.

I would be interested in hearing your experiences or thoughts about public deliberation. Feel free to share your stories or your questions about this tool.

Next time, we’ll shift from embracing the messiness on policy issues to embracing the messiness in groups, particularly identity-based groups. How do we learn to disagree well with others across difference in race, sexual identity, or religion? We’ll explore intergroup dialogue as one option to help us get there.

Works Cited:

• Carcasson, M. & Sprain, J. (2010). Key Aspects of the Deliberative Democracy Movement. Public Sector Digest.

• Carcasson, M. (2009). Beginning with the End in Mind: A Call for Goal Driven Deliberative Practice. Center for Advances in Public Engagement. Occasional Paper. No.2.

Additional Resources:

National Issues Forum – research based issue guides for numerous public issues, along with information & resources for facilitators on how to host forums.

Resource Guide on Public Engagement (2010). National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation – outlines different engagement streams & processes for exploration, conflict transformation, decision making, and collaborative action.

Kettering Foundation – focuses on supporting democratic practice through resources, publications, and training

Click here to see all posts in this series.

About the Author: Erin Payseur is the Associate Director of Community-Based Learning at Baylor University. She has ten years of experience in civic engagement and higher education. As part of the Office of Community Engagement & Service, she develops sustainable frameworks for co-curricular service & social justice initiatives to guide students in considering their roles as leaders and citizens. She currently serves as the institutional contact for the NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Lead Initiative. She has authored several articles and presented nationally on civic engagement, service, and leadership. In addition to her civic engagement work, she also serves as adjunct faculty for the leadership minor. She has a B.A. degree in Religion/ Philosophy from Presbyterian College and a M.Ed. in Higher Education & Student Affairs from the University of South Carolina.

Erin Payseur

Associate Director, Civic Learning Initiatives, Office of Community Engagement & Service, Baylor University