Deliberation: An Introduction

  • Post category:Features
  • Reading time:6 mins read


By John J. Theis and Jose Vela

Lone Star College


The Center for Civic Engagement at Lone Star College has taken up the task of building democratic skills through meaningful dialogue. Working with the National Issues Forum and the Kettering Foundation, we have initiated a deliberative dialogue program that seeks to teach students, faculty, staff, and community members the skills that are necessary to discuss and understand complex issues. These dialogues give citizens the opportunity to join together to deliberate, to make choices with others about ways to approach difficult issues, and to work toward creating reasoned public judgment. Deliberative dialogues build on the theory that democracy requires citizens to engage in ongoing deliberation on public matters. The program builds on the idea that it is our communities and discourse that are the foundations for civic renewal.

Deliberation is an essential public skill; it is the discursive process through which differences are negotiated and group decisions are made. Deliberation is always oriented toward reaching common ground or taking action; it is not the practice of discussion for the sake of discussion. If you are serious about working with and through diversity, deliberation is an excellent process to negotiate and incorporate differences. In some cases, different people will view problems in totally different ways, while others will disagree on whether a particular problem is a problem at all. Deliberation should be inclusive and democratic. It is important to discuss both the purpose of and some of the guiding principles for democratic deliberation (Harringer, 2007).

Deliberative dialogues use issue books framed by the National Issues Forum Institute to examine issues from at least three basic perspectives. We encourage active listening and an examination of the assumptions that people bring to their opinions. By laying out a set of ground rules and then discussion each perspective in sequence, if leads participants to see opposing and diverse perspectives with an eye on areas of agreement and disagreement. Groups finish the exercise by reflecting on these themes and looking for next steps. A deliberation concludes with each group reporting out their thoughts to the larger gathering.

We have used deliberation to examine issues such as Immigration and disillusionment with our political system, the purpose of higher education and the changing world of work, and Campus Carry legislation that was being debated in the Texas Legislature. Participants in deliberative dialogues consistently report positive experiences and research shows that the Deliberative experience helps to shape student perceptions of politics in positive ways (cite Kettering reference, cite eJournal specific reference).

What do these dialogues look and sound like? This video feature excerpts from actual conversations to establish a reference and framework for experimenting with deliberate dialogues in your own classrooms, campuses, and community contexts.


deliberation, dialogue, community engagement, civic education, service learning



References and Further Reading

Boyte, H. C. (forthcoming). When deliberation becomes democracy: Higher education, power, and the public work of growing citizens. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation.

Boyte, H. C. (2009). Civic agency and the cult of the expert. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation.

Carcasson, M. (2013). Rethinking civic engagement on campus: The overarching potential of deliberative practice. Higher Education Exchange, 2013, 37- 48.

Harringer, K. (2007). Speaking of politics: Preparing college students for democratic citizenship through deliberative dialogue. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation.

Johnson, D., & Johnson, R. (1988). Critical thinking through structured controversy. Educational Leadership, 45(8), 58-64.

Lawrence, W., & Theis, J. J. (2016). Reimagining civic education in our colleges and universities: The influence of deliberation on students perceptions of political participation. eJournal of Public Affairs, 5(2).

Mathews, D. (2009). Ships passing in the night? Journal of Higher Education and Outreach and Engagement, 13(3), 5-16.

National Issues Forums Institute. (2016). Issue guides. Retrieved from

Theis, J. J. (2016). Political science, civic engagement, and the wicked problems of democracy. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2016, 41-49. doi:10.1002/cc.20188

Author Biographies

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Dr. John J. Theis is the director of the Center for Civic Engagement for the Lone Star College (LSC) System and professor of political science on the LSC-Kingwood campus. He also serves on the national council of the American Commonwealth Partnership and the steering committee of The Democracy Commitment. Involved in civic engagement work for over 20 years, Dr. Theis started the LSC-Kingwood Public Achievement program in 2010 and was one of the founders of the LSC-Kingwood Center for Civic Engagement. He was recently appointed by the chancellor to head a system-level civic engagement initiative across the six LSC campuses. Dr. Theis holds his PhD from the University of Arizona. His publications include The Institutionalization of the American Presidency: 1924- 1992, co-authored with Lynn Ragsdale. He has received numerous awards and honors including nomination for the American Political Science Association’s E. E. Schattschneider Award for Best Dissertation published in the field of American politics, Professor of the Year, Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, Innovator of the Year, and the John and Suanne Rouche Excellence Award. Dr. Theis grew up in South Korea as the son of Methodist missionaries. He has two beautiful daughters, Samantha and Angela, and a new granddaughter, Harper.

Jose Vela, Jr. is the video production specialist at LSC-Kingwood’s Media Services Department as well as a freelance videographer and editor. He holds a degree in communication with a media emphasis from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Jose has worked as a director of photography/camera operator on a full- length independent film, short films, and music videos, all in collaboration with local Houston artists. He also produces instructional and documentary work at LSC-Kingwood. He is an avid cinephile and one day hopes to produce full-length documentaries and narrative films. He is happily married and resides in Kingwood, Texas.