Foreign aid programmes have long targeted Bolivia for ‘capacity building’ at the level of institutional democratic channels and the state legal system. By contrast, this article examines a shift in donor priorities from reforming public institutions to workshops targeting interpersonal and social communication through capacitación or skill-set building aimed at changing individual behaviour and values. I argue that the conversatorio – or model dialogue – is the quintessential space of capacitación towards those ends. Yet, as I show, conversatorios also become a space of contestation as participants challenge not only the framing of political issues, but also the very techniques of negotiation, deliberation and political subject formation proposed in these ‘capacity building’ spaces. Conversatorios unmask competing political stakes and expectations of state–citizen relations as sceptical participants revalorize demonized capacities.