How to scale up conversations to embrace millions (Collective Coherence Part Three)

We know we can scale up democratic exercises like voting to embrace thousands or millions of people. But what about scaling up democratic exercises like conversation, dialogue, deliberation, and choice-creation? We know how to create generative – even wisdom-generating – conversations with a dozen or a hundred people in a room. But how do we scale up these powerful interactive modes to involve and impact whole communities and countries? In this post I describe principles and strategies that speak to that question. In the next post I offer examples where it is or has been done.


The powerful things we can do with conversation hold tantalizing promise for a better world if we can just find ways to involve and impact whole communities, countries, and global networks. Luckily, there is growing knowledge about how to do this without losing salience, quality and potency. But most of what we know about this is embedded in specific programs, methodologies and ideological frames of reference. It has not been brought together and openly explored.

In this essay, I try to offer perspectives and design principles that can be applied across many diverse approaches to scaling up conversational power. I want to stress that I intend this material as a stimulant for further dialogue and expanding understanding in the field of powerful conversations for the common good. It is only a beginning, but the inquiry itself is vitally important.

With that in mind, I offer here (a) four factors to keep in mind when scaling up, (b) what I see as the dynamic essence of what we’re trying to do when we attempt it, and (c) 21 strategies for actually doing it.

Four factors to keep in mind when scaling up

All the different approaches to scaling up that I’ve explored in my research involve different versions of the following four factors:

1. Broad Participation – Sometimes it’s the number of people involved, sometimes it’s their targeted diversity (diverse demographics or stakeholders), sometimes it’s participants’ connectivity to broader networks. Whatever it is, the people involved are strategically chosen for their impact outside of the room.

2. Public visibility – Usually this takes the form of journalism and other media reporting. It often involves notable transparency. The point is that thousands or millions of people can see and/or hear the essence of what is happening or has just happened in the conversation and/or are exposed to its significance and energy in powerful ways.

3. Narrative engagement – Conversation designers who wish to scale up know the power of story to evoke, model and spread people’s understanding and engagement. They tap this power through enabling observers to vicariously experience the conversational process and/or through a compelling vision that gets painted in the inspiring salience and scope of its conclusions.

4. Impact – This can range from the number of citizens influenced to how the results feed into subsequent powerful conversations, particularly those of leaders of all types at all levels. It can come from new linkages between leaders and stakeholder networks, from changed perspectives and real actions taken by citizens, stakeholders and policy-makers, and even from the process being institutionalized within the structures of governance.

Keeping these four factors in mind when designing conversations about public issues can make all the difference in the world in terms of how much impact they have.

(Note: While the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s Core Principles for Public Engagement  wasn’t designed to specifically address the issue of “scaling up”, it is certainly relevant to the larger inquiry of which this is part.)

The dynamic essence of what we’re trying to do when we scale up

Here I offer a summary of the key dynamic(s) involved in “scaling up” the power of what we can do in conversations among dozens of people into the minds, hearts and lives of millions.

When I use the voice of “we” and “us” in this summary, I’m intending it as an inclusive voice – the total citizenry and/or the full range of diverse stakeholders. Individual members of this inclusive category are impacted because their TYPE of person is visibly included, even while other types who they may dislike are also included. So here’s how “they” might describe it:

People like us – people who embody our needs, values and demographics – together live through and publicly share with the rest of us a dramatic, informative and important story or conversation about a compelling public issue that has a creative ending that we can identify with, give power to, and/or live into ourselves. Usually these diverse people who look, think and feel like us – in all their problematic diversity – are professionally convened and facilitated in special ways that help them interact productively.

This kind of engagement becomes more powerful to the extent it actually involves us, uplifts the quality of our lives and interactions with each other, and/or shapes the actions of the powers-that-be who shape our lives. And it becomes even more powerful to the extent it happens often, periodically, as an institutional habit of our politics or governance, and/or whenever we say we need it or want it.

To the extent the public engagements we organize are inspired by – and embody – that description, they will likely have profound and widespread impact.

Twenty-One Strategies for Scaling Up

The list of strategies below grounds and expands the preceding lists of principles and dynamics into things we can actually do to facilitate the greater engagement and power of the conversational programs we convene.

1. Engage an intriguing/provocative/newsworthy diversity of participants – randomly selected citizens, citizens chosen for their differences, activists on opposing sides, full-spectrum stakeholders, etc. Be conscious of reaching beyond “the usual suspects” and addressing logistical barriers, cultural differences, power imbalances and other obstacles to participation by marginalized populations. We can even choose participants with public fanfare and celebration to better engage their spectating peers.

2. Make sure sponsorship and facilitation are excellent and demonstrably neutral or multi-perspectival.

3. Profile the participants ahead of time and/or with before-and-after interviews. Help the audience understand the humanity of those who were actually in the conversation, to identify with some of them, and to understand what they went through.

4. Engage major media – magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, and/or leading social media channels – as major players upfront – at least for coverage, but better yet as conveners, sponsors, partners, etc. Get their buy-in. Innovative variations of this include creating dialogic reality TV shows or Netflix shows. (This may be helped by engaging celebrities; see #17 below.)

5. Provide a blow-by-blow account or edited video of how the conversation unfolded. (Note that combining the previous four items with this one can help media readers or viewers experience the conversation vicariously, potentially generating mass shifts in perspective comparable to the shifts experienced by the direct participants.)

6. Engage well-networked stakeholders as participants in the dialogue or deliberation, opinion leaders who will take their experience and results out into their networks, spreading the impact of their conversations far and wide through their peers and interest groups.

7. Choose a topic that has urgent currency or otherwise attracts public attention. One good way to do this is to engage the public in prior conversations or in online forums and prioritization platforms to choose the topic(s) for conversational programs or the issues for consideration by minipublics (small groups who embody the diversity of their community). People tend to “own” what they had a part in co-creating. Talk up the choice to attract more public attention and stimulate citizen interest in what might soon come out of the conversations.

8. Have participants in high quality small-group deliberations report out to their community in well publicized community events and/or on media – and/or engage them in follow-up activities. They almost always have significant energy for this, if asked and assisted.

9. Organize follow-up community conversations about the results (e.g., at the report-out event mentioned above and/or later in churches, schools, libraries, etc.). World Cafes are simple to organize. Open Space-type events increase the chance for community action. (At a report-out event the focus group participants can mix in with the broader community attendees in a World Cafe after which everyone is invited and enabled to gather briefly into action groups, Open Space-style, with the instruction to simply share contact information so the groups can convene later elsewhere for subsequent dialogue and action.)

10. Create prior online public input and/or deliberation spaces the results of which are given to minipublic deliberations or stakeholder dialogues as part of their briefing materials.

11. Include public officials – and other major players in the issue (NGOs, religious groups, corporations, community service groups, etc.) – in planning, sponsorship, report-out events, follow-up conversations and events, implementation teams, etc. Have public officials promise to take the outcome seriously – either acting on the results or explaining why they cannot or will not – and hold them to their promise.

12. Link the results of the conversation to specific governance activity – e.g., informing voters on a citizen ballot initiative, getting the results published by a government agency or on a government website, having legislation, programs or regulations drawn up to initiate implementation, etc.

13. Do certain dialogue and deliberation events periodically/regularly in ways that attract ongoing public attention – e.g., have a randomly selected group of citizens convened newly each year to consider the condition and aspirations of their community which they report back to the community, as a “We the People State of the Community Report”. Done well, this kind of regular event can generate a feedback loop through which the public can view its own evolving collective concerns, collective dreams, collective intelligence and collective agency.

14. Organize public advocacy activities around any such instance, to promote legislation that institutionalizes various forms of high quality public conversational engagement. Include prior participants from high quality public engagement as advocates, because they almost always have high energy around the remarkable experience of citizenship they had in that well facilitated conversation with their peers. They can easily see how more of that kind of activity could dramatically improve democracy.

15. Do or sponsor research about the impact of such initiatives on public opinion and behavior, on media, and/or on public officials.

16. Remove, revise, or get exemptions from laws that impede our ability to do this kind of work – such as laws preventing paying for participant food or which impede public officials from participating.

17. Engage celebrities visibly, either as advocates for or as participants in dialogue and deliberation events. Their participation can attract more public attention. Choose generic, local, or topic-specific celebrities as appropriate.

18. Engage LOTS of citizens – e.g., many thousands, or 1-5% of the population involved – in a mix of online and/or face-to-face engagements – especially if results from one part of the initiative are used as input into subsequent parts (e.g., major community study circle programs often end with an open space-type gathering of participants as noted above, to co-create action teams to deal with the issue they studied). A leading edge in this direction is the development of interactive games and policy-simulation exercises which present citizens with challenges and rewards that engage them with the issue.

19. Engage lots of different dialogue and deliberation (D&D) practitioners and practices around a single issue and use specially designed before-and-after surveys to compare and combine the results from those diverse activities. This can not only engage an unprecedented diversity of D&D approaches in a coherent program, but also produce spreadsheets capable of being sorted by method, location, demographics, etc., for unprecedented insights.

20. Get government buy-in. Promote the ability of quality D&D – and of government actors taking public engagement seriously – to build public trust in government and/or to help government deal with controversial issues without getting blamed for doing what needs to be done. This is often especially appealing to political leaders who are faced with complex problems they don’t know what to do with or controversies in which they face major political risks no matter what they do.

21. Generally spread the stories of what happened in public D&D activities – in major media, in professional networks, through community institutions (libraries, schools, religious congregations, neighborhood groups, etc.), through social media, etc.

Note: I compiled these strategies from notes taken at my workshop with Rosa Zubizarreta on “Leveraging and scaling-up group D&D [Dialogue and Deliberation] to bridge larger social divides” at the 2016 conference of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD), from other conversations at that conference, and from my prior and subsequent experience and research. As noted earlier, these strategies – along with the rest of this post – are intended as a starting point and stimulant for further sharing, brainstorming, experimenting and exploration of “scaling up” by the larger community of conversation-based practitioners, scholars and activists. Feel free to use it as you wish.

I’ll share some innovative examples and methods for doing these things in the next post in this series….


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Tom’s work on co-intelligence provides clear evidence that we have the resources and wisdom we need to confront even the most difficult challenges, if we will just put them to use with intentionality and wisdom.

— Juanita Brown
co-founder and co-author of The World Cafe 

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole

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