Learning from community conversations

Learning from community conversations

Posted on December 17, 2014 by Pam Truitt

I’ve participated in three community conversations, so that now makes me an expert, right?

Think again!

As a "guide on the side" for The Patterson Foundation's Aspirations to Actions initiative, I’ve spent the past few weeks learning how one of The Harwood Institute’s "turn-outward components"—Community Conversations—work. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:


The Conversation Leader's greatest skill is to listen for clues to unlock deeper conversations

- When two people have mentioned a topic, what can be learned by probing deeper?

- When one person is dominating the discussion with a judgmental agenda and others are only agreeing, how can broader participation be encouraged? (should I tell a joke?)

-The conversations that follow the end of the formal session are often richer than the the sentiments expressed during the conversation. Should it be captured?

- When participants are trying to solve problems rather than sharing their aspirations, how do I gently lift the conversation?

Note: There is so much to learn about being a good facilitator—it is not easy to keep your own experiences and perceptions canned. The good news is that the notetaker functions as a ‘silent facilitator.' 

Conversation (1)

The Notetaker (aka the silent facilitator) participates quietly

- Observes body language (tension, emotions, ambivalence, common ground)

- Captures key words, phrases (aspirations, different perspectives, barriers, hope or lack of)

Note: Good notetakers must participate silently and listen the same as the Conversation Leader. A debrief immediately afterwards with the Conversation Leader helps the two to capture the moments while still fresh. 

Conversation (2)

Participants sharing community aspirations

- A few blurt out what’s on their minds, but these are rarely aspirations.

- Others think first. Many share they have never thought too much about aspirations or have never been asked about their thoughts.

- Once the conversations get going, the thoughts begin to flow.

Note: I found myself thinking about things I’d never put much thought into. Like other participants, It took me a few minutes to put thoughts into words, then I had to prioritize! Which is a higher aspiration—opportunity for all…or quality education for all? Fortunately, in two of the three Community Conversations, the leader allowed participants to share more than one aspiration. 

Conversation (6)

Considering the take-aways

- Be prepared for pregnant pauses at the beginning. Folks are used to being asked narrow questions, sometimes with pre-determined outcomes. They are not accustomed to starting a conversation with “What kind of a community do you want?” (This is the first of the 10 community conversation questions.)

- With two people listening (Conversation Leader and Notetaker), it’s much easier to pick out what folks are expressing. For example, a person who dominated the conversation never said that the issue he spoke passionately for was opportunity for youth. Yet, that’s what the Conversation Leader and Notetaker heard.

- The Community Conversation sessions are designed for 12-15 participants and are based on the concept that a group of citizens sitting around the kitchen table with a neutral party will be able to talk more openly with less intimidation. In my limited experience, it makes sense as I’ve been in a large and a very small group. The large group made it difficult to explore ideas and perspectives. In a small group, it felt as if there weren’t enough ideas or perspectives to explore.

Have you participated in a Community Conversation? What are your thoughts?

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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