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The Value of Different Engagement Methods: Conversation Cafés
Friday, October 1st, 2010

Most people have some preconceived notion of what a public consultation may look like: a crowded room, people talking back and forth, and a person standing at the front fielding questions. However, meaningful engagement can be achieved in a wide variety of ways, and as a result, should look different depending on the situation.

In my last blog, I talked about Community Summits, one of the engagement methods I used recently in a course at the University of Victoria to conduct ‘simulation’ consultations.  This time, I’m shifting to another method, Conversation Cafés.

Conversation Cafés (CCs): Created in 2001 by Vicki Robin and Susan Partnow, this method has a broader purpose in relation to other engagement methods, which is to foster a culture of social cohesion and trust through open and lively dialogue between citizens. With this goal in mind, CCs are intended to be a fairly informal event- although it has some structure, the focus is on providing people with an opportunity to engage in some quality conversation and learn from others. Participation requires a high level of open-mindedness, acceptance and sincerity for other viewpoints; and there is no need for a formal agenda, consensus-building or marketing.

In contrast to other methods, the host is a full participant and does not represent any specific organization. In the simulation I conducted, I acted as the host to lead a dialogue on ‘dynamic updating’ in public deliberation. In the context of an urban planning controversy, participants discussed how conflicts among the various segments in the community could have been accounted for in the decision-making process.* Because of its highly open nature, the CC provided a suitable environment for true issue exploration, even when there are divergent viewpoints. The process is structured to encourage participation from everyone in the group, and allows them to speak freely without being interrupted. The value proposition became clearer with each subsequent round of discussion, as you could really see the conversation deepening. To learn more about CCs, you can visit www.conversationcafe.org.

To further illustrate the wide range of engagement methods, it’s useful to mention of some of the creative things my colleagues did for their simulations:

  • One group used Playback Theatre, which takes personal stories shared by participants and uses improvisational theatre to portray the experience, and deepen the level of understanding, to the wider group. In my course, this method was used to focus on the impact of binge drinking on university student.
  • Another group used the Think Like a Genius process, which is a hands-on, strategic planning method aimed at leveraging the ‘beneath the surface’ (and often times incommunicable) ideas that individuals have. Participants collaborate to construct physical models that symbolize their creative vision. To some, this type of exercise may sound odd at first; but it has been used to engage executives from companies like IBM, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble.

So what is the significance of these examples? It means that when you’re planning an event, you don’t have to start from scratch. If you have a good idea of what you want to accomplish and who you want to engage in the process, then these types of methods can be a valuable starting point for designing and implementing a truly effective engagement strategy.

– Tristan Eclarin –

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  1. Ellis Westwood says:

    Great blog, Tristan!

    For me, one of the real strengths of the Conversation Café method is the importance it places on creating the right physical environment to foster effective dialogue. The setting should be as much like a café as possible: warm atmosphere, comfortable chairs, round tables with tablecloths, relaxing music in the background, and so forth.

    We’ve all been in meeting rooms that are cold, large, and uncomfortable. Is this the right space if the facilitator is trying to create a dynamic, creative and “blue sky” dialogue?

    The right space setup and design doesn’t always guarantee success. But, the Conversation Café approach recognizes how important it can be to create the right atmosphere.