Creating Better Conversations through Meta-Consensus

Posted by on February 25, 2020 at 2:36 PM

Reposted from 

Have you ever talked with someone and, a little too far into the conversation, you realized you were talking about two totally different things? That’s happened at the Jefferson Center office, when we had staff traveling to both Athens, Ohio and Athens, Greece.

Similarly, when it comes to talking about politics, it seems people are increasingly quick to argue with one another, when they might be coming to the discussion with completely different assumptions on a given topic. This makes having a productive conversation, coming to a consensus, or simply listening to one another that much harder if you aren’t on the same (or at least similar) pages to begin with.

Luckily, deliberation, and specifically Citizens Juries, can help people establish this initial understanding: it’s called meta-consensus, or “a general agreement about the nature of an issue but not necessarily about the outcome of it.”


By creating this general agreement first, Citizens Juries better set the stage for a productive conversation about an issue. In a world where it feels like we’re constantly shouting past each other, it’s refreshing to create a shared understanding with someone, even if you don’t completely agree in the end. Establishing meta-consensus can produce better conservation outcomes, break through gridlock on contentious issues, and give decision makers a clearer look at what people actually think.

A Stronger Starting Place for Discussion

At the Jefferson Center, we create meta-consensus by providing background information from unbiased experts and witnesses. For instance, when we hosted a multi-day long Jury about the future of local energy in rural Minnesota, participants heard from a local government and utility representative. By learning together, asking questions, and discussing what they heard, Jurors develop a common understanding of the issue. Their opinions on the issue are likely to still vary, but they have a strong foundation that will help them discuss those opinions in a more productive way.

A woman holding a microphone at a Citizens Jury event.

We also like to establish a different kind of meta-consensus, one rooted in common values. At the beginning of a Jury, we often ask participants an open-ended question such as “What makes you proud to live here?” As Jurors go around the room, the same ideas are often repeated, such as “the sense of community” and “good neighbors and friends.” This exercise primes residents then for the subject-matter conversations that will come later in the event, where they can reference and recognize those values when things get challenging.

As a participant at an event in Winona, Minnesota, stated, “It’s really refreshing to sit down with a bunch of community members and realize you share the same core values and are united.”

A Sense of Connection

Between work, family, and other commitments, many of us rarely get the opportunity to connect with our neighbors. If we never have the chance to interact with one another and hear each other’s stories, feelings of community division and difference can seem that much more amplified. Citizens Juries can help restore that local connection, by giving people the reminder they needed to want to collaborate with their neighbors on tough issues. We hear a lot of participants say they never knew discussing issues in such a productive way was possible–our events often serve as a good reminder that people can actually work together.

For instance, we support a journalist collaborative, Your Voice Ohio, of media professionals invested in improving their relationship with local communities. During Your Voice Ohio events, journalists sit down with community members and discuss what information they need to thrive. Journalists often gain a better understanding of how non-journalists are thinking about community issues, and vice-versa. This helps them establish that meta-consensus, when they can agree on the simple nature of an issue, before trying to identity and report on potential solutions.

A journalist talks to a community member at a Your Voice Ohio event.

Katie Wedell, a reporter at the Dayton Daily News, commented that she realized during a community forum on the addiction crisis that “some people were still confused about what is an opioid. … We forget sometimes that when we’ve covered something for so long that some people are new to the story and don’t know what we’re talking about.”

But by talking together face-to-face and learning together, journalists and community members helped create a general agreement about what the addiction crisis looked like, to set the stage for talking about how to address it.

Acknowledging Natural Nuance

There can be a misconception that for an engagement process like a Citizens Jury to be a success, participants must completely agree on a decision. This isn’t the case: instead, processes like ours invite different ideas and creativity as a final product. It’s clear to us that the big challenges we face today don’t have one-size-fits-all solutions. In our final reports, you’ll find lists of “top recommendations” and “key considerations” instead of a sweeping, unanimous decision.

By establishing meta-consensus at the beginning of a Jury, we invite a much more creative, nuanced discussion where participants can build on each other’s ideas and examine other perspectives. Building meta-consensus, not complete agreement, is the factor essential to success. As Simon Niemeyer and John S. Dryzek write, “it embraces the principle of plurality within the context of a broader agreement that there are other legitimate points of view that should be admitted to the deliberative table.”

A group of people look at a spread of sticky notes.

For more information about meta-consensus, check out The Ends of Deliberation: Meta-consensus and Inter-subjective Rationality as Ideal Outcomes by Simon Niemeyer and John S. Dryzek.

To learn more about you can engage stakeholders on key issues and establish meta-consensus, contact us!


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are strictly those of the author and do not represent the views of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, the Bridge Alliance, or the Bridge Alliance’s member organizations. Additionally, the Bridge Alliance Education Fund makes no representations as to the accuracy of this post’s contents.