How to plan and prepare for your next big conversation

June 15, 2021

By: Claire Patterson, Marketing and Engagement Assistant at Simon Fraser University Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue

Mental health, class discrimination, systemic racism, polarized politics, reconciliation, these are the problems that we are facing in the 21st century, just to name a few. They can feel overwhelmingly big, scary, adversarial, and filled with risk. More and more, units at the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue are asked to advise groups and individuals on how to work through big issues. Our Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative team, especially is focused on how conversations around these topics can strengthen, rather than erode, our democracy. 

Recently, Dr. Jennifer Wolowic has held workshops for universities and libraries across Canada and North America to help leaders step into these big conversations as part of our institutional duties to democracy. Whether it is with a classroom of students, policy stakeholders, or co-workers, navigating a big conversation grounded in dialogue takes planning. 

Here are six tips to help you plan and lead the big conversations that matter to you. 

1. Be intentional

Facilitators often play a neutral role when moderating a dialogue but the steps, activities, and journey they lead a group through is never neutral. It is planned, step-by-step to guide participants on a particular kind of thinking and emotional journey. As you plan your big conversation, think about your end goal, then develop your dialogue around it. Think about when you want people to feel reflective or energized and design activities to lead them to your goal. Then use dialogue during the big conversations to help people understand one another by navigating different opinions and lived experiences using empathy.

2. Connect as Humans

The Centre for Dialogue believes in starting out all dialogues by inviting participants to connect to each other as human beings. We rarely ask people to introduce themselves by job title or position. Rather, we ask participants to introduce themselves with a neutral question. The kind of neutral question should respect the tone and topic of the conversation, but allow people to hear what they might have in common with others in the room. Neutral questions might include prompting individuals to explain how far they travelled to arrive in the room today, or in an adjustment to the online world, ask participants where they are zooming in from. Additional neutral questions could be prompting participants to rank their comfort with the topic at hand. Asking neutral questions helps level power dynamics in the room. 

3. Lead with participants interests

Good dialogues begin with lots of research before the event. They need to be shaped specifically for the participant's interests and motivations. Show that you're interested by putting in work prior to your big conversation to get to know your participants. Know where your participants are coming from. What motivates them and what is their story? This helps you to understand topics that may scare them or what they will want to avoid in conversation. Get to know your participants so that you can plan for everyone to feel included and respected in the space of the big conversation.

4. Game design is your friend

The best forms of engagement are fun. Incorporate elements of ‘game’ into the planning of your big conversation. Too often those in power design for themselves, design for participants instead or even better, let them do it themselves. Participants can create the rules of the game to represent the value of collaboration in the conversation. Remember, a little competition makes people try harder and care more about playing. Think about your favourite game and try incorporating some of its elements into your big conversation. This can help lay the groundwork of trust and understanding for the conversation. 

5. Know Thyself

Self-awareness is also important for holding big conversations. Ask yourself what your relationships are with attendees and with the topic? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What hacks can you use to elevate strengths and minimize weaknesses? Reflect on what words you bump on and what sets you off. Unpack these thoughts so that you can work from a space of trauma-informed engagement. Do the same for your participants by asking them to unpack what they say. Prompt the participants to tell you more and continuously check-in. 

6. Celebrate dialogue serendipity and calamities

Nobody can fully predict or control human behaviour, especially in big conversations. Sometimes you are able to land in a place that feels good, even if it wasn’t where you expected. Other times the dialogue won’t go ‘well’ at all. Despite the intentionality, purpose, research, and self-discovery that was put into the process, we are all human and sometimes things won’t go as planned. Take a breath and try again. Having the big conversation is always worth it.

What’s next?

Plan and strive for your big conversation to be a safer space. Although one size doesn’t fit all, planning for a big conversation should centre in what ways participants can feel heard and represented in the space. This means that some participants may not want to talk at all but would rather be in the space to learn by just listening. There are many ways to make participants feel represented.

So, start by answering these questions. Good luck. 

1) What’s your goal?

2) Which tips can you apply to your work or efforts? 

3) What are you going to start or stop doing?

4) Who can you enlist for support?

5) What is your very next step?

Happy planning and good luck with your big conversation!

This content comes from the presentation Big Conversations by Jennifer Wolowic, delivered to the Ryerson Democratic Engagement Exchange on March 23rd 2021.