In many popular intervention methodologies aimed at stimulating sustainable rural development (in the widest possible sense) the idea of 'participation' is a leading principle. This article will demonstrate that the process in which actors are supposed to participate is often thought of as being a process of planning, decision-making and/or social learning. It will be argued that such an operationalization of development processes is based on inconsistent theoretical assumptions, and can easily lead to unproductive development interventions due to an inability to handle conflicts. As an alternative it is proposed to use negotiation theory as a basis for organizing participatory development efforts. The implications of such a shift in thinking about participation are far-reaching: it requires new modes of analysis, and different roles, tasks and skills for facilitators of participatory processes.