Center for Democratic Deliberation offers a toolkit for difficult conversations

November 20, 2019
Infographic on "Arguments Are Rooted in Agreement" featuring points on how to have an effective argument by looking for points of agreement throughout the discussion.

This entry in the Center for Democratic Deliberation's deliberative toolkit was created by Allison Niebauer, a Ph.D. student in Communication Arts and Sciences and Center for Democratic Dissertation Fellow.

IMAGE: Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the holiday season just around the corner, you might find yourself in a situation with family, friends, or others in your life with whom you disagree about politics or other topics.

What should you do? Try to move the conversation to something else? Avoid the situation entirely? Or maybe, lean in and use deliberation to get to the root of your differences.

The Center for Democratic Deliberation, a research center within the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, studies how dialogue can be used to advance democracy and offers suggestions for having difficult conversations in a new deliberative toolkit available at

Center for Democratic Deliberation Director Brad Vivian said he hopes the toolkit will help provide a new approach to framing issues and thinking about the role everyone has to play in a democracy.

“Entries are designed to encourage people to talk with one another about the ‘how’ of social/political debate and propose solution steps from the ground up,” Vivian said. “Family members with very different social or political views might be able to agree that certain forms of argument are harmful or counterproductive irrespective of individual opinions.”

Examples of tips provided include:

  • A healthy debate is not a sport or winner-take-all competition. “Beating” the person with whom you are having the conversation is not the goal.
  • Participants in a meaningful debate must assume that their views will evolve or change over the course of the discussion.
  • The best solutions to real-life problems are usually somewhere in the middle of many different arguments.

Toolkit entries were curated from faculty and graduate students in the College of the Liberal Arts who specialize in rhetoric and related fields. Anyone is welcome to submit additional tips on the toolkit website.

Either way, Vivian said he hopes the time with friends and family during the holidays serves as a reminder of how each of us can practice democracy in our own lives.

“Democracy works most effectively when it begins in local communities and family or social circumstances and spreads outward from there,” Vivian said. “The break gives people a chance to reflect on the state of democratic discussion in their home communities beyond campus — to continue building democracy from the ground up rather than from the top down.”


Last Updated November 20, 2019