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Hosting Community Conversations

Creating the space, place and time


Difficult conversations

How do we spread new ideas? How do we make those new ideas stick? People whose ideas and life goals are different from our own, may not be interested. Perhaps they don't care or it's too risky to take on alternative ideas, especially when it might entail leaving their comfort zone? Hosting good quality conversations in tourism is essential, especially when tourism's social licence - i.e. it's right to operate and use community resources - is increasingly under question.


Talking to people can be really hard to do when it involves putting ideas forward that are difficult or risky. Despite being ‘sociable animals’, meeting strangers who are not like us or discussing new ideas with people we know, or even family and friends, can cause anxiousness, fear or a sense of uncertainty. It can produce a chemical cocktail in our brains that cause us to close down or clam up. The flight or fight hormone is triggered when we are challenged. We all respond differently, but we have all experienced those moments.


Good conversations

But the reverse is also true. Ever had a good conversation when your brain is firing on all cylinders and you are vibing off the ideas and energy of others? You reach a special connection, a place of understanding, and creative ideas come pouring forth? Not only are you listening deeply, reflecting, and learning, but you are also shifting your own worldview. Perhaps you are even experiencing a rush, a neurochemical cocktail that has taken you to a place of generosity and inspiration. It's a place where you are not challenged but feel relaxed, valued and open to learning.


The newly appointed Prime Minister of Samoa, Fiame Naomi Mata'afa engaged the people in her constituency using a similar approach - inviting people into her home to talk about a new way of doing things, supported with food and friendship. Over several months, this personal approach changed the landscape of ideas, politics, and relationships, breaking 25 years of control embedded in hierarchies and descent in the nation of Samoa.


Worldviews

Understanding how worldviews are formed, and the role that our worldview plays in our conversations is important if we are seeking to have good, open, and inspiring conversations. is crucial to the spread of ideas. A good part of your worldview is influenced by aspects that are deeply embedded in who you are, where you have come from, and what you believe. Your culture, heritage and life experiences shape your personal worldview, how you know things (what counts as evidence) and what you believe (about nature, the world and people within it).


Worldviews are shared within cultures, communities, and ethnicities via social media, voice, song, music and art, to name a few. Social media has become an important influence on our worldviews that our worldviews can also be shaped by negative influences, fake news, spin and, dare we say, nonsense. Some people find themselves increasingly isolated in silos, their worldviews serve to create communities of like-minded individuals. Being confronted, misunderstood, rejected or unheard by others, they either fight or take flight.


Drawing from Foucault, we can identify some clear conversational settings:

  • 'People like me’ are family, friends and workplace/educational cohorts. Encounters occur in ‘safe’ places, where common ideas, attitudes and values are shared.

  • ‘People like me, but whose ideas are different’ are encounters with difference. These are uncertain encounters but can be liminal, creative places where new ideas emerge, and innovation happens.

  • ‘People not like me’ are strangers. Meetings with strangers can seem dangerous and confronting places where fears are confronted. Change in opinions and worldviews may occur, but it's often hard work, and it requires vulnerability and genuine dialogue.

Echo chambers

When new ideas are spread by thought leaders within groups of people working together closely over a specific period on a shared task or goal, common understandings (an alignment of their worldviews), language and attitudes can emerge. This process is called ‘communitas’, where the belonging and sense of shared identity that emerges can have many positive emotional, creative and concrete outcomes. We have also seen how it can lead to negative cultish behaviour in anti-vaxxers, climate denialists, QAnon, and so on.


Echo chambers of ‘people like us’ circulate, share and reinforce jargon and language which have specific meanings within the group, but are not understood by outsiders who are not part of the group. Relationships are established, and networks form that endure beyond the period of time but are perpetuated in the language of a closed circle. When we use jargon, we end up talking to ourselves in what seems like a hermetically sealed environment.


So how do we proceed from here?



Kitchen Table Conversations

One approach that has been used effectively is "Kitchen Table Conversations". These are gatherings that are pragmatic, sensible, low key and effective ways to discuss difficult or contentious topics. They work like this:

  • Hosts invite small groups to have conversations based on focused themes.

  • Participants might be friends, neighbours, family, workmates or people known from community networks.

  • The conversations are usually shaped around starter questions about the specific issue to be discussed.

  • The goal is to find as many people as possible, with differing views, to come together in a non-threatening environment to share their ideas.

The key to open sharing of views in safe places is that several people step forward and agree to host a ‘kitchen table conversation’.


These people then bring together small groups of up to 10 participants. These might be friends, neighbours, family, workmates, or people they know from community networks. They meet around the kitchen table, their workplace, or wherever is convenient. The only proviso is the place needs to be quiet enough for everyone to be heard easily. Deep listening is essential.


At election time, the Voices of Warringah (VoW) adopted this approach as a way of bringing back a stronger link between policymakers, community and elected representatives. The Voice for Indi was a similar initiative. but it's an approach that has been used across the world to bring together and build understanding across diverse people.


Steps to Hosting a Kitchen Table Conversation

  • Set a meeting date

  • Invite up to nine friends/family/colleagues/neighbours/community members to your home or another suitable venue,

  • Think about who should be in the room

  • Collect contact details for the group

  • Facilitate the discussion

  • Ensure there is a summary of the opinions and ideas of your group and that it is forwarded to the relevant coordinating body

Create a positive ripple

VoW suggests:

  1. That participants talk about their discussions and the ideas that emerged with other people, at work or home or in their community

  2. Suggest too that people who attend one session, also volunteer to host their own, so that the ripple spreads – often in unexpected directions

  3. Link with a wider organisation (or establish a new one) that has an overview, information and coordination role and ‘hosts’ the discussion record of Kitchen Table Conversations on a dedicated website. Destination Management Organisations might perform this role for the tourism, hospitality and events industry

Tips for Hosting Kitchen Table Conversations

  • Explain the Kitchen Table Conversation purpose and process and reporting back mechanisms if part of a wider organisation

  • Fill in the attendance sheet with basic information about the participants

  • Ask participants to introduce themselves and say briefly why they have come to be part of the conversation

  • Appoint a scribe – someone from the group who is able to track the discussion and capture it in as much detail as possible and not be selective

  • The group does not have to reach a consensus!

What is important is that people feel as though they have been able to contribute their ideas and opinions – and for these to be recorded faithfully

  1. Make sure you allocate enough time for each of the suggested conversation starters

  2. Ask people if they are happy to have their photo taken to record the event

  3. Give people an opportunity to sign up to the larger group for circulation of future information

  4. Sit down with your scribe straight after the meeting and flesh out the meeting’s content as much as you can while you both have it foremost in your minds

  5. Then develop the written summary by referring to the Discussion Starters

  6. Naturally, if there happened to be additional discussion beyond these Discussion Starters, it is important that this is captured as well.

  7. Send results, attendance stat sheet and any photos to an overarching organisation, if there is one.

Simple and Effective Ground Rules for Running the Meeting

Meetings full of people with good intent can still come unstuck. A simple and balanced set of ground rules will go a long way to achieving a productive meeting.


It is important the host establishes the ground rules as soon as introductions are over. The following five such rules are tried and well-tested.

  1. We accept that everyone is entitled to have a say

  2. We will make the effort to listen to one another

  3. We respect people’s right to their opinions, even if we disagree

  4. We will try at all times to be constructive

  5. We will try to stay on track

It is important that people at the meetings are provided with the chance to hear these suggested ground rules; and that they indicate their willingness to adhere to them during the course of the discussion. If necessary, the host can draw people’s attention back to them all, or to some in particular.


Resources

Reasserting the public interest from Australia's kitchen tables. The Conversation.


 

Dr Jenny Cave will be hosting a 5-week course in Hosting Community conversations commencing October 2021. Jenny is an expert in hosting community conversations in different settings and cultural contexts and is passionate about helping others create and hold the space for meaningful and authentic engagement and community empowerment.

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