Facilitation and Building Public History Discussion Spaces

A circle of coffee cups on a wood table.

Facilitating meaningful discussion can be hard.  Many of us have facilitation success and horror stories from the seminar room, a larger classroom setting, or a community outreach program.  Engaged conversations can be a powerful way to learn and provide a sense of shared learning, build on collective intelligence, and allow for diverse viewpoints.

The Art of Hosting argues that facilitating conversation is an art and that it takes practice and work to become skillful at helping folks work together.  I also love their philosophy that a host is someone who “ignites and holds the space for conversation.” This idea situates hosts as part of a group and not a leader of conversation and discusses facilitation as form of participatory leadership.

This facilitation philosophy also appeals to me because it draws on the important idea of building physical and intellectual space for discussion.  Making sure physical and intellectual spaces are welcoming and as barrier free as possible can be crucial in establishing room for open dialogue.  In just simple things like making sure an appropriate amount of time is set aside for discussion – don’t rush participants or the group as a whole.  Discussing challenging, divisive, personal, or emotional topics often require more time.

Recently, in a presentation Jessica Knapp of Canada’s History Society remarked that public history is all about relationships. I couldn’t agree more. At their core many public history projects are about building and maintaining relationships with others. Long term community discussion and fostering long term community conversations is all about relationships.  It means meeting people where they are at, building space to share stories where folks are respected and heard, and making room for communities to co-create and learn together.  It also means understanding that people come to discussion spaces on uneven ground, that power imbalances all real, and that reflecting on what brought us to a space can help us move forward.

Some of my favourite community based experiences recently have included participating in Thinking Rock making sessions, where community members are engaged in hands-on making projects. The facilitation style of the folks at Thinking Rock is something I greatly admire.  Similarly,  in the past few years I’ve had the chance to work with 4Rs Youth Movement and their framework for cross-cultural dialogue and building spaces for critical conversations is fantastic. The work of 4Rs emphasizes that dialogue takes “time, space, and care” and that “the activities or facilitation methods themselves are not impact without intentions, approach, and goals carefully thought through.” (p. 14) What you are attempting to accomplish through facilitation and discussion matters.  Why are you having these community conversations? Are they merely a check box form of consultation?   Or are you actively listening and letting community responses guide your work?

Creating space for discussion takes time and effort. Participating in community discussions and working in existing collaborative spaces is a great way to start to learn about what facilitation styles appeal to you and an easy way to start thinking more critically about dialogue spaces.  What are your go to facilitation strategies?

Additional reading:

Photo credit: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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