Art of Engagement: Four steps to help make your community conversation productive

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, Wyoming

I have received some emails from experienced facilitators, see the pullout box, that echo what has been happening in a process I’m watching right now. So, I offer the following four points on how to make your public engagement more productive.

Work backwards

You don’t know the outcome of the process (otherwise why ask for input), but you do know what type of agreement or decision needs to emerge. Make sure participants share that understanding from the beginning. The sponsor of the conversation (a county commissioner, a city council person, the president of the organization) should help kick things off with a clear, but absolutely neutral statement of why the conversation is happening and what type of outcome is expected.

Design accordingly

People who are drawn to this work often value conversation for its own sake. Most people don’t. They’re goal-oriented and time-limited, They appreciate structure. If your goal is simply to get people with different points-of-view in the room together, the structure will be different than if something specific has to emerge, but there must be structure. That starts with the charter given by the sponsor. Then there’s the agenda.

Agenda PLUS

You may know that there will be lots of twists and turns in talking about a messy problem. Some of you may recall my column on the “Event at the Red Church” in a previous issue of The Western Planner. Sometimes you have to toss the agenda, but people still need one. They need a sense of direction both for each event and the whole process. I like big agendas, written on a dryboard or hung on the wall. They reinforce the intent. I also like to have a big process flow chart that appears at every meeting. It reinforces continuity and gives you a tool with which to remind everyone of where the process has been and where its going.

Explicit recap

I’m writing this from a place where a citizen’s group kept losing momentum by answering numerous questions about what had already happened at the beginning of each meeting. Instead, try starting each meeting with a brief but definitive recap of what has already happened and what’s happening now (you can use your flowchart to illustrate), then move on. Tell newcomers that someone will answer their questions at a break.

What to read?

Try “Beginning with the End in Mind” by Martin Caracasson, who directs the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University. This paper is available from the Center for Advances in Public Engagement at

Sound familiar?

Examples of emails from experienced facilitators that columnist Lee Nellis has been receiving
“It’s always challenging for me to figure out a good balance between letting conversation just develop in a sort of messy way and
giving lots of good structure …”

“… facing that same tension between structure and free-flow conversation. … How do you know when to draw the line and do you try to map it out with an agenda or just let the program grow organically? My biggest concern with free-flow has been that 1) it’s necessary for really messy problems BUT 2) people in the room who don’t understand can come away thinking that “nothing was accomplished” I see the sessions as a series, but most participants see each event as an individual experience …”

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin in 1974. Contact him at

Published in the July/August 2013 Issue

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