Deliberation in Everyday Conversations

By Nick Felts and Sarah Murphy

In mid-May 2020, the Deliberation in Everyday Conversations research exchange brought together individuals deeply embedded in their communities and familiar with public deliberation. Our aim was to learn if deliberation was happening in everyday life and what it looked and sounded like. At that time, the nation was two months into the COVID-19 lockdown. Participants in the exchange reflected on their past experiences with deliberation and how the pandemic was impacting the ability to deliberate in communities. The 2020 edition of Connections includes an article by Wendy Willis, highlighting the key themes that emerged from that exchange. 

Since May, additional crises have surfaced: racial, electoral, health, and educational. In mid-October 2020, we checked in with five of the six original participants in the exchange. We wanted to find out whether the changes in the previous six months had impacted how people do (or don’t) talk with each other about shared problems in communities. Several themes emerged from these conversations.

1. The spaces where everyday deliberation takes place have been lost (temporarily).

Before the pandemic, people commonly struck up conversations with people while they were waiting in line at a store, picking up their kids at school, getting their hair cut, or socializing after the sermon at church. These conversations were organic—they just happened as people discussed concerns or ideas. The concept of deliberation in everyday conversations is still there, but all the normal places are gone. These interactions often occur among “loose ties” or even complete strangers, many of whom might think quite differently from us. During the pandemic, many of our circles have shrunk, and we engage more with our immediate families or “strong ties.” A church pastor told us that the discussion between parishioners after a sermon was often more important than the sermon itself. The sermons still exist, but the chatter after services has largely disappeared as people livestream from home.

Instead of plugging into spaces that already exist, we must be more intentional and structured in order to have these types of discussions. Not only are the places lost, but also are the opportunities to transfer the ideas that come out of these conversations. As a replacement for what has been lost, many are intentionally creating spaces for talk to occur. However, when space must be created, the organic nature gives way to an experience more akin to a formal forum.

In a sense, we have lost casual, joint decision-making. It is more difficult to create loose ties when we cannot interact informally. Ideally, these loose ties can build community and generate ideas for common problems. Whereas strong ties—between family and close friends—are even stronger, and deliberation is happening there. But it is more individual and family focused: How do we safely celebrate holidays or events? What is the best decision for my child’s education?

This is not to say that people lack concern about what is happening in the nation and in their communities. Communities are trying to figure out what recovery and rebuilding looks like while reimagining their future. In our conversations we heard examples of pockets of deliberation, for example, church congregations struggling with how to reopen safely or what the role of the church is when congregations cannot physically meet. Joint decision-making is being used by pods of families collaborating to make education possible for their children. Local organizations, formed to meet immediate needs caused by the pandemic, have continued to meet even after the initial crisis subdued a bit. As they continue to meet, they ask the quintessential deliberative question, “What should we do?”

2. People feel fatigue and fear of talking but yearn to connect.

Those with whom we spoke noted that people seem more likely now to express their opinions, make statements, and make demands than prior to the pandemic. Many have tried to follow up, but there is less willingness to discuss issues in further detail or entertain the trade-offs that might result from various courses of action. We heard that those more inclined toward deliberation or considering trade-offs stay away because issues have gotten so contentious. People are afraid that it can be viewed as a sign of weakness to talk with someone who disagrees with them. Even more concerning, people view talking as another way to divide us. Others are frustrated and simply don’t know what to do. 

But there is still a desire to talk and connect. Despite the polarization and pandemic, people want to interact with others. People are desperate in some cases; one participant noted a few neighbors who just had to stop and chat about the news while they were out walking their dogs. Others noted people in their communities who said they would be willing to talk but express trepidation, saying, “They don’t want to hear from me”; “I am afraid of being labeled”; or “They are ignorant.” For some, discussing issues is seen as a possible respite from the constant churn of electoral politics, and they recognize that commitment to community goes beyond the election. Through all the polarization, toxicity, and fatigue, one participant noted the education of youth is still able to transcend some of the polarization. When it comes to issues concerning youth, people seem willing to put down their partisan swords for a moment.

3. We may be neglecting opportunities to deliberate.

The numerous concurrent crises have foisted many difficult decisions onto people and communities. Not all these decisions are deliberative in nature—some are technical questions best addressed by experts. Other issues leave us with difficult trade-offs between widely shared values—trade-offs that cannot be adjudicated by experts. Are these opportunities for deliberation and decision-making being seized? The conversations about reopening the schools often don’t involve parents, and public officials aren’t engaging productively with the community. In one community, a police department responded to the protests with public relations events instead of discussing citizens’ concerns. In another community, there was strong resistance against a local mask mandate, with citizens voicing their concerns over email or Zoom. But the opportunity to deliberate was lost when the governor’s mask mandate ended the discussion. According to one participant, there was a sense of relief when this mandate was handed down as a local decision did not have to be made. 

Some we spoke to expressed regret that we haven’t exercised our deliberative muscles enough. As a result, these muscles are atrophied in moments of crisis, when deliberation could be helpful. As such, we are tempted to find easier roads or to offload decision-making responsibility.