Book Club Week 5: Everyday Talk in the Deliberative System by Jane Mansbridge

In week 5 of the NCDD Book Club on Democratizing Deliberation, we’re looking at Jane Mansbridge’s chapter “Everyday Talk in the Deliberative System.” This week’s chapter leader is Christoph Berendes of Netalyst, Inc. Christoph is a technologist, project manager, and editor. He’s worked with Federal participation efforts since the early days of the web and blogs at

A University engineering department debates its student recruitment policies. Past discussions have gotten ugly, so they’ve brought you in to facilitate. Larry, the department chair, has argued forcefully that fewer women enter the department simply because fewer women are qualified. It’s been civil, but now the discussion is stuck. You call for a coffee break.

During the break, Elizabeth, Larry’s junior colleague, pulls him aside and says: “I love your sense of the traditional, but it’s really time for you to get over male chauvinism.” You’d cautioned participants against labelling one another, and she had been biting her tongue all morning.

Larry is about to laugh the comment off – they are old chums, after all. But then he sees just how angry she is. He is floored: he trusts and respects Elizabeth. But she can’t be right – he prides himself on how accepting he’s been of female students and colleagues. But maybe she is: he sees a new energy and commitment in her eyes. He withdraws into a corner to think this through, and when the session reconvenes, he changes his vote.

Mansbridge argues that the formal deliberation you’re facilitating is the tip of the iceberg. Everyday talk is the rest. Together, they comprise the deliberative system. And the news – mostly good, she says – is that before your deliberation begins, during intermissions, and after it ends, the guidelines you’ve so carefully instituted for the formal process are attenuated if not suspended.

“As we ask what can motivate good deliberation within our formal and binding assemblies we should also ask what can motivate good deliberation in our interest groups, our media, and our everyday talk. All of these constitute important parts of the larger deliberative system.”

Criteria for the deliberative system

Mansbridge uses the criteria proposed by Gutmann and Thompson (G&T) and Joshua Cohen (JC) for the legitimacy of formal deliberation as a framework.

Publicity: Reasons given “to justify political action and the information necessary to justify those reasons should be public” (G&T 95).

Accountability: This justification is due from any decision-maker to anyone affected by the decision (G&T 128).

Reciprocity: The justification should be acceptable to those affected by the decision (G&T 52).

Freedom: Participants should be free, i.e. not be exposed to the threat of sanction or force (JC).

Equality: To the extent that power continues to play a role, e.g. labor negotiations embedded in a framework of economic power, participants should be equal in power and have equal voice (JC).

Reasoned outcomes: Outcomes should be settled only by reference to the “reasons” participants offer (JC).

Consensus: The deliberation should “[aim] to arrive at a rationally motivated consensus” (JC).

Competing values and the spaces of everyday talk

Mansbridge asserts that these criteria apply as well to everyday talk, but argues that the overall deliberative system is best served when they are applied more loosely to everyday talk. There are competing values that must be considered.

Authenticity: Participants should be able to speak and be heard authentically. However, the first version of a statement may not be in a form that would be broadly accepted. So, “[h]uman beings may sometimes need spaces protected from accountability as well as from publicity in order to think most freely about the problems that face them”. Everyday talk creates “spaces, such as the arms of a best friend, in which the most corrosive and externally harmful words can be uttered, understood, assimilated, and reworked for more public consumption”.

Liberty: The status quo sometimes obstructs participants’ liberty and equality. As a remedy, everyday talk provide spaces for productive, albeit rough-edged encounter. Offering arguments and reasons that others might find unacceptable, i.e. stepping back from reciprocity, may allow some participants to step up to an equal footing: “subordinates sometimes need the battering ram of rage”. Uncivil, even angry, bitter, and offensive talk “may be necessary to break down the barriers” or, through emotion revealed, deepen participants’ understanding of one another.

Everyday talk also offers a safer venue for heated talk, since its structures are looser and more forgiving. Over coffee, Elizabeth can be less measured, because her words are not “on the record”, thus less threatening to Larry’s public stature.

Unmasking conflict: A singular focus on the common good may ride roughshod over participants and process when there are, in fact, fundamental conflicts. Clarifying, indeed sharpening, underlying conflict can reveal what “has previously been masked … by hegemonic definitions of the common good”. Removing the pressure to argue in terms of the common good can make it easier for people to articulate their particular understanding of an issue, thus supporting legitimate bargaining.

Necessity of emotion: “[R]eason can proceed only rarely without emotional commitment”, so it’s too limiting to constrain justifications for deliberative outcomes to reasons only. Further, compassion and solidarity are “essential element[s] of good reasoning in matters of public concern.”

Mansbridge’s primary focus is on deliberative process in everyday talk. However she notes that everyday talk also provides a venue for working through topics that would benefit from collective discussion but aren’t appropriate for government action. Feminism’s early and productive focus on sexual politics would have proceeded very differently, if it had proceeded at all, if those discussions had been shifted from the back fence and conscious-raising groups to legislative hearings and televised debates.

Finally: Mansbridge is not dismissing the strictest form of the criteria noted above: she argues repeatedly that the deliberative system as a whole should tend towards these goals, even as the everyday talk “rest of the iceberg” operates more loosely.


G&T indicates a quote from Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s Democracy and Disagreement. All other quotes are from Mansbridge.

Comments, please

During the 2012 Book Club, I’ve learned most from the comments that provide details of concrete experience and practice:

  • a hint regarding “on-ramps and off-ramps” for a deliberation,
  • the story of a deliberation that was repugnant not because of its — generally agreeable — result but because of the process,
  • the suggestion to use “wicked problem” framing to explain why old approaches can’t work, and
  • the news of research on how best to structure content on complex issues

These, and many other examples, have provided rich fodder for discussion and mutual learning.

So, if you can illustrate your comments with examples from your work, so much the better.

If you’re comfortable or just intrigued by Mansbridge’s argument, consider:

  • Have you experienced situations where everyday talk – outside of the formal boundaries – created a richer discussion and better outcomes later, when you were back “in session”?
  • How do you draw on the spaces of everyday talk, intentionally, to improve formal deliberation?

Perhaps your experience offers counter-examples about the value or power of everyday talk:

  • Have your formal deliberations been undermined by loose everyday talk outside the session?
  • Can you reduce the influence of everyday talk so that it doesn’t matter what happens outside the formal session?

or about the competing values Mansbridge cites – authenticity, liberty, unmasking conflict, and emotion:

  • Have you found one or more of these to be minor values, or even counter-productive?
  • Do you have tools or processes that allow you to incorporate these values into a formal session, making the spaces of everyday talk less necessary?

I wanted this post to be provocative and useful for practitioners. If you’ve read Mansbridge’s chapter, you’ll see that I’ve focused on one portion of her argument, then simplified and streamlined further. If I’ve missed something that you found helpful, please comment and broaden the discussion.

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