Ekaterina (Katya) Lukianova is a program officer at the Kettering Foundation in the United States, with an interest in developing linguistic tools for analyzing public deliberation. Prior to this, she taught in the Department of English Philology and Cultural Studies at Saint Petersburg State University in Russia. Tim Steffensmeier is Professor of communication & leadership at Kansas State University. He is the founding director of Third Floor Research at the Kansas Leadership Center.
The other day my husband and I (Katya) were having a late night chat about everything and anything after having put our two kids in bed. He was telling me a story about a friend from his student days, and how that friend, who married very young, encountered various challenges in his marriage. I thought the story was interesting, and was asking him questions. As we seemed to have exhausted the subject, my husband said “You know, I was seeing that whole situation differently from the way I used to, as I was recounting it to you. It was so long ago!”
Very often people think of dialogue, and particularly of public deliberation, as a way for people to learn from each other’s experiences, and – hopefully – to be able to understand others’ perspectives better. Various models have been proposed for how this happens; but most of them emphasize how stories told by others can help us see things differently. However, little research has been done on how storytelling and the questioning of stories in public deliberation helps people learn from their own experience, albeit with the help of others. Yet, this line of investigation into how stories are used in public dialogue can be crucial in attaining both better understanding of how deliberation works and in designing better processes.
Conveners of deliberative dialogues often hope that people will enlarge their perspectives and learn from each other’s experience. They also often emphasize that people may have a change of heart when they hear other people’s stories. This, in turn, should help people in communities find common understanding of social issues. Ultimately, it is hoped that this will enable people to cooperate better (examples of such initiatives that we are directly involved with include the National Issues Forums Institute associated with the Kettering Foundation and the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University).
However, this expectation that people will be changed in the course of dialogue may also turn some potential participants away, if they feel pressure to change their views on the basis of other people’s opinions. Our inquiry into storytelling indicates – among other things – that learning from one’s own experience through deliberative questioning is as important as learning from other people’s experiences. Personal stories in a deliberative forum are often treated differently than sacrosanct testimony – people agree to be vulnerable and subject themselves to being questioned by others. At the same time, this opens the possibility of people modifying their perspectives in a more organic, gradual, way, than just experiencing a cathartic change of mind because of another person’s testimony.
It is also worth emphasizing that personal stories in public deliberation have a different function than the kind of ultimate persuasiveness that many advocates of worthy causes expect their stories to have. For example, when public health professionals hope to use stories to educate people about COVID-19. They often assume that once the story that conveys their concern is communicated, their purpose is achieved – people will be more likely to trust them and follow their recommendations. It is, indeed, a legitimate and often effective use of the power of storytelling. However, a truly deliberative process respects the existence of competing personal stories, each of which can be questioned, and yet deserves its own respect.
Personal stories as a type of argument in public deliberation seem to have a unique function because they have the potential to invite the right combination of empathy and critical challenge to make sense of the manifold collective experience. As people tell stories in deliberative forums, they learn from each other’s stories, but also from their own stories as they discover new facets of their own experience when others question their stories. People adjust their stories and link them to broader public concern by comparing them to what they hear from others. This process is not conflict free, but it can be a productive process when people share democratic aspirations.