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Dialogue Trumps Complexity

Q&A on being a facilitator of three days of conversation with 400 European citizen representatives (Europe Direct’s Annual General Meeting: #AGM2011).

 

Q: How can we engage citizens in the European project?
A: Discussion.

Dialogue is the best way to navigate the complexities of multifaceted issues. Talking through topics offers an inclusive way to collaborate and elevates the diverse voices needed to stimulate thoughts, deepen meaning and enrich insights. Counter to the twitter-logic and too-busy-attitudes, sitting down with others is still the best way to come together around tough questions.

 

Q: How can a 400 person conversation be efficient?
A: Engagement.

When the masses decide they want it, they get it. So the question is not about how to make people have a certain type of discussion, the real question is how to set the tone for dialogue and to launch a question that will light up conversation. In the case of #AGM2011, the atmosphere was created by letting people first discuss (in 100 groups of four) their shared experiences around their current pursuits in citizen engagement. Then, upon that foundation we started discussions and exchanges about bigger shared questions. The momentum was then carried forward by handing over the rest of the time to the group to decide on the breakout session agenda – in a matter of minutes, the group declared twenty topics which were announced; participants then voted with their feet to join the sessions they felt most pertinent.

 

Q: Why do people like this open approach?
A: Inspiration.

By handing the keys over to the audience, no one can sit in the back seat and offer only critiques. Everyone is driving, deciding the direction and arriving at the destination. Each of us, are inspired by something different – the sea, music, art, challenge… but all of us want to be in control of our own destiny; none of want to suffer through listening to subjects of little interest. Session such as the #AGM2011, which leverage massive simultaneous dialogue leap frog conventional seminars by letting individuals inspire themselves, choose their destination and set their own path. Facilitating such a session is about setting the conditions for freedom and trusting that people are resourceful and responsible.

 

Q: How do you evaluate the success of a conversation?
A: Results.

Like in any program, in the end we compared our objectives to our outcomes. We wanted stronger networks, we got them. We wanted to explore key issues, we did so. We wanted innovative solutions, we got them. The difference was in the amount of simultaneous and diverse paths that we took; rather than a top-down schedule of speakers, we turned the conference on it’s head, making the participants the speakers, and the leaders the listeners. In this way, everyone who participated offered what only they could offer, and got exactly what they needed.

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