The American public voice is remarkably responsive to being invited to engage. Unfortunately, a large part of the public’s mistrust and apparent polarization seems an artifact of being uninvited to citizenship.
Dialogue research follows strict rules. Participants are encouraged to:
- listen rather than to argue;
- suspend judgment rather than debate;
- dig behind their surface opinions in order to explore their own tacit assumptions;
- engage other dialogue participants to help uncover likely consequences of the strong emotional positions that people take on controversial issues.
The general findings from a variety of these dialogues are quite revealing and consistent across dialogue subjects.
One-day dialogues do not lead to consensus. At the end of a day of difficult dialogue, widespread disagreements persist. Yet, people’s positions do evolve to some degree, and there is almost always some narrowing of differences. For example, on dialogues about illegal immigration, strong opponents of legalization usually soften their opposition as they wrestle with traditional American pride in being a nation of immigrants.
Far more dramatic is the attitude change toward dialogue participants who hold opposing points of view. Almost always, a shift occurs from hostility and contempt to friendliness and cordiality. After a dialogue on abortion, for example, it is not unusual to see pro-choice and pro-life opponents walking out of the room engaged in cordial conversation.
The American public voice is remarkably responsive to being invited to engage.
To me the most dramatic finding is what happens when individual participants gradually realize that the group is genuinely interested in their input and thinking. It is not an exaggeration to observe participant attitudes shift abruptly from expressing what I call “raw opinion”—mindless, thoughtless, superficial, irresponsible ventilation—to thoughtful, responsible forms of judgment.
The American public voice is remarkably responsive to being invited to engage. When ignored, neglected and left outside the tent, people lack the motivation to be thoughtful and responsive. In their frustration, they sound off, they ventilate, they shoot from the hip verbally, they don’t stop to think.
But when invited to shape their own and their community’s and nation’s future, the transformation is almost magical. (This is why I titled my book on dialogue, The Magic of Dialogue).
I am convinced that a large part of the foul mood of today’s public—its apparent polarization, mistrust, skepticism, selfishness and lack of pragmatic commonsense—is an artifact of being uninvited to citizenship. We have become bystanders in the great game of democracy.
And we don’t like it.
Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.