Democracy is voting at elections right?

Think again... democracy requires us everyday!

Having a thriving and functioning democracy is something that many around the world aspire to. We want the safety, stability and values of fairness and equity that democracy promises – and the freedom it gives us.

But have you ever stopped to think about what qualities and traits people need to participate in a democracy?

This is something we frequently reflect on at DemocracyCo, as it is essential to the work we do.

In our work, which is a special privilege, we see democratic citizens being willing to spend time on an issue that matters to their community. We see them talking, questioning, listening and thinking – and we see them creating solutions together.  Deliberative engagement processes bring out these skills and enable us to see how communities can work together when drawing on these democratic skills – true deliberation is something to behold!

Image Source: Museum Victoria

Jedediah Purdy [Raphael Lemkin Distinguished Professor of Law at Duke University] has recently reflected on the same thing on the ABC Minefield podcast:

“We need to shake off the idea that democracy should come naturally. This is a superstition of the enlightened, and it serves us very badly in a time of democratic crisis. As perceptive observers have always understood, democracy is extremely demanding. It requires the qualities of mind and character that sustain a healthy and balanced political trust, such as the willingness to listen to others and to doubt one’s own side. It also requires the commitment to build a world of citizens, not just consumers or spectators or even protesters, but people who expect to exercise power and responsibility together. We will need to take control of our own future before it becomes a present we cannot stand to trust.”

So what are these qualities? To be democratic citizens, what qualities of ‘mind and character’ do we need?

Over the last 20+ years of running deliberative processes, we have been observing the qualities of democratically active citizens. The majority of everyday people we see in our work share these qualities naturally, although they might be a little rusty! Deliberative democracy is designed to draw these out and provide a perfect platform for people to demonstrate and develop these skills, giving facilitators a platform for witnessing active citizenship at its best. We have identified eight qualities:

  1. Take notice / Be Curious – An engaged democratic citizen pays attention to public affairs and issues. This might mean following the latest national news stories with close attention, or simply it might be about keeping up with the local bulletin board or newspaper. Thriving democracies are underpinned by people who are curious about, and take notice of what’s happening in their city, neighbourhood, region, country and world.
  2. Willingness to participate – We need to be willing to step up to democratic activity beyond simply election time. This may be contributing to a local community activity, volunteering ones time, or participating in a civic activity such as a community panel – but being willing to devote some of your time for the good of others is a hallmark of democratic citizens. This is not just about turning up – but it also includes participating in ‘good faith’, with a positive and productive attitude!
  3. Listening to hear and understand – We see people participating in deliberative processes showing a real commitment to listening for a purpose. People don’t just listen to let others speak, they listen to understand what matters to them, and how they see the world – this deeper and more attentive form of listening is game changing – and can really assist in activating democratic muscles. Brene Brown talks about this as moving from “being a knower and being right to being a learner and getting it right”. 
  4. Ability to question oneself and each other – Having the courage and ability to question other people kindly, is a learned skill. In our work we create the conditions where its normal for people to quiz others in a respectful and civil way. When we question our own view of the world and our own truths, we open up all sorts of opportunities and horizons that we would otherwise not see.
  5. Finding truth together – In an increasingly complex world where truth is mixed in with opinion and mis-information across multiple platforms bombarding our everyday life, its often difficult to obtain a shared understanding of the facts. We have learnt that by priming people’s critical analysis skills, we can help them to navigate this complexity, by simply asking probing and insightful questions and being respectfully curious. Being able to critique, question and analyse information in front of us, means that we are more able to find what’s true together. This builds trust in information… and also in one another.
  6. Working on ideas, exploring all possibilities – Jumping to solutions quickly is one sure fire way to miss possibilities and also to mis-understand the depth and breadth of a complex problem. Starting from deeply understanding the “problem” and working together on the solutions, is a central characteristic of democracies and deliberative processes alike. Our participants work extensively outside of the deliberation room to explore the problem and learn about, test and try solutions.
  7. Remain non-judgemental – A thriving democracy depends on being able to interact with people who are very different from you. Social media algorithms prevent this – they keep us isolated and ignorant of views which are divergent from our own. One of the main traits we notice in 99% of our deliberators, is a willingness to be open-minded. This is supported by the conditions we set for them to examine themselves and each other for bias – throughout their collaboration. We see people who have very diverse values and mindsets putting aside superficial opinions of each other, and getting to know each other – by discovering the things they value and share.
  8. Live with disagreement – You may not realise it, but full agreement is rarely reached in a deliberation, or in a democracy. The main goal of a democracy is to find ways to benefit all people – but this often does not mean that everyone agrees on the same thing, or the same solution. However, we can find some common solutions that we can all ‘accept’. A healthy democracy should not aim for agreement – we are humans, and we will always have different views, and that is fine. But life requires compromises – and we need to learn how to advance together, even when we differ. Using language like “can we live with this” can help us discover the shared ground we need to proceed.

Habits and commitment

In addition to the ‘qualities of the mind and character’ that we have described above as essential for a healthy democracy, we also need to cultivate ‘habits and commitments’ that support our democracy. In a recent article for The Atlantic, “We’ve been thinking about America’s trust collapse all wrong”, Purdy discusses the significance of habits and commitments. Think of any change you want to make in your life… you might want to save money, eat healthier food, go running everyday – it is crucial to be committed to the change and to develop the habits to make the change happen. So too with a democracy…. Its not enough to simply have the qualities we outline above, they then need to become part of what you do more often than not.

Deliberative practices help us cultivate these habits and commitments. We can use them to create more chances for people to learn and apply these skills and traits, and to assist government with the policy deadlock they face, as well as to strengthen our democracy for the future. There is also no doubt that practicing our democratic skills also impacts other parts of our lives – that strengthen our capacity to communicate and work with others in any situation.


Democracy is in peril. Globally we are seeing democracies crumble and fragment – at a time where we arguably need stronger and more robust democracies than ever before.

The challenges ahead for our societies and communities are overwhelming, and scary. But we can work on ourselves and strengthen our democratic muscle – by working on these qualities of mind and character and implementing them as everyday habits in our lives. Be curious, turn up, don’t judge, work together for the common good and be comfortable to disagree!