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Public Discussion: We’ve All Done It Before

Some people think there’s something magical or mystical about IF-style citizen discussions.  Others think they’re just plain mysterious.  They are none of these things.  In fact, they’re a lot like the kind of thing most of us do on our own when faced with difficult and important personal or family decisions.

Consider the following decision, which countless Americans make every year:

Your spouse receives a job offer in a distant city.  It’s a good position and the colleagues will be great. The city is attractive and interesting.  But it will mean putting significant distance between you and your extended families, uprooting ties with the community and friends, and a lost sense of place.

Of course no one would make such a decision lightly.  The question is how to go about it.  No books or on-line sources can tell you what to do.  Counselors and advisors will only take you so far.  At the point that you’ve hashed and re-hashed the decision with your spouse, the feeling is likely to grow that you may be missing something, that you need to step back and get a fresh perspective (maybe more than one).  About that time you’ll start to enlist others who can help you “think this thing through.”  You’ll avoid people who only want to tell you what to do.  Instead, you’ll seek out people who can give you insights, new ways of looking at the decision, things you haven’t thought of.  Sometimes by direct invitation, sometimes simply as a result of explaining yourself to others, your conversations will widen, in the process giving new life to the discussions you have with your spouse.  By the time you’re done, your decision—though still your own—will reflect not only your thinking, but that of all the other people you’ve consulted.  No matter which way you decide, you’ll feel better about the decision, having relied on others to explore it fully.  It won’t be a perfect decision—that would be magic.  But it’ll be the best you can do.

What do such discussions actually look like?  No mystery there, either.  We’ve all had them. You don’t spend a lot of time on details; the bigger the choice, the less details matter—and they can’t be predicted anyway.  Instead, if they’re about big, potentially life-altering decisions like moving, they’ll usually begin with some very basic questions, questions like, “What do we really care about?” and “What do we want out of life?”  They’ll also probably include an attempt to sketch out the big options you have available—the possibilities.  And they’ll almost inevitably involve a discussion of the likely consequences of the different possibilities that you see—to the extent you can foresee them.  They end either when you’ve come up against your deadline, or you feel like you’re not adding anything important to your discussions.

If discussing concerns, possibilities and consequences is so central to the way most of us approach big, private decisions, is it such a stretch to think it might be a useful way to approach our public decisions as citizens?