Hosting Conversations for Social Change

Creating a safe meeting space to have deeply impactful conversations ultimately leading to social change can be challenging. It requires intentional focus and thoughtful design, similar to hosting a party. There are many factors to consider carefully. This type of conversation requires more attention to detail than collaborative conversations.

Logistics

Setting the date and time are the easy part, closely followed by finding a location. The location, however, is an integral component to the success of the event. To spark different thinking, a different type of space is required.

Meeting space

  • Consider things such as easy access off the freeway, centrally located, with close and adequate parking.
  • Acoustics are suitable for many concurrent conversations.
  • Consider audio/visual needs. Layout the space to maximize visibility to presentations and speeches, as well as accommodate interaction.
  • Create a space that is inviting, welcoming and comforting. It should also bring a bit of intrigue and curiosity when people enter the space.
  • Seating for impactful conversations should be smaller and more personal. Conversations will be deeper and more personal, requiring participants to be more vulnerable. Limit seating to four, no more than five people per table, or better yet, consider removing tables altogether and sit in a circle. Circle practice has a deep and rich history of its own. Click here for more information.
  • Ensure the room is large enough to host conversation; allow for mingling and movement or planned activities. Should refreshments be available, it is nice to have a dedicated space for food and people to greet each other, get to know each other and explore deeper meaning.
  • Consider covering the tables with a bright, decorative cloth with tactile objects, such as fidget spinners, craft sticks, pipe cleaners, stress balls, modeling clay or playdough – anything to shift the train of thinking away from logic and towards creativity. Another option could be to cover tables with butcher or craft paper and having colored pencils, pens, markers or crayons and let people express themselves by doodling, drawing, scribbling or coloring.

Invitation

  • The invitation should include more than date, time, location and place. It should be inviting and draw the person toward the conversation. Think of an inspiring or thought provoking topic or question to center the conversation around – relatable to all participants.
  • Use imagery and the topic to create intrigue and a curiosity.
  • The invitation should create a desire to attend and disappointment if unable.
  • Répondez s’il vous plait (RSVP) is essential to planning. Ensure you leave enough time to adjust any details as necessary.

Planning the Design

  • Build an agenda that will move the group through forming, storming, norming, to performing. Help them quickly become comfortable with each other. Design activities that will ensure everyone has an opportunity to be heard. Consider liberating structures, prototyping or other delivery methods, such as 1, 2, 4. All should be small group conversations, or popcorn brainstorming. Get creative and have fun with this. The purpose is to engage the participants to think outside the proverbial box.
  • Impactful conversations do not just happen on their own. People need time to get to know and trust each other before being vulnerable. As much as people dislike icebreakers and team building activities, they do serve a purpose. The purpose is to get everyone’s voice in the room. The key to making them successful is to tie them to the objective. Is the intent to get to know each other more deeply or will simply stating one word about how they are feeling be enough? Use this time in your agenda wisely and to your advantage of accomplishing the intent and purpose.
  • Allocate enough time for deep, meaningful and rich conversations. Too long and you will lose people. Conversely, participants will not reach collective impact if too short. Finding the sweet spot may take some practice. I prefer using tried and true activities that provide timing, pitfalls and other tips. Sometimes, the situation may require the design of a new activity. Strongly contemplate timing when that happens.

Launch

  • Have everything set up well in advance to allow you a moment to catch your breath and be a welcoming host. Greet people as they arrive, showing them the lay of the land and introducing them to others. Make them feel welcome.
  • Review the agenda and adjust, as the group deems necessary. This may not be an issue if well designed.
  • It is imperative the group establishes rules of engagement early – discuss how we will treat each other while we are here. Ensure this list is more than not talk on cellphones. How will the group resolve conflict? This is imperative to creating a safe environment for those who dislike conflict.
  • Be respectful of others and their time by following your agenda, yet being flexible to meet the needs of the group. If rich dialogue is adding value, perhaps let the conversation go a little longer than planned and cut another agenda item a little shorter than planned. When appropriate or there is a pause, ask the group how they would like to handle the situation. Would they prefer to continue the conversation and adjust the agenda, or would they prefer to move on?

Handle these meetings and situations with care, just as you would for planning a wedding, hosting a party or other social gathering. Pause, reflect and see what emerges.

Charice Pidcock is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Nya Jackson

Thanks for sharing Charice. These are great points to keep in mind as you’re hosting a social change event. I think the hardest part is creating action items and keeping people engaged after the event so it isn’t just a discussion or forum but something productive comes out of it. These tips are certainly a step in the right direction.