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Practical Tips for Citizen Discussions: Part 1-Recruitment

IF staff, associated faculty, and contracted facilitators have accumulated many useful insights about the art of facilitating public or “citizen discussions” of policy possibilities.

Most of these individuals brought significant facilitation experience or other group leadership skills with them to the task. But it seems fair to say that most found that IF –style discussion offered some lessons that other discussion processes did not.

Many of these lessons inform our developing process and our improvement of discussion materials.  But there are also many practical lessons that relate to the craft of policy possibility discussion facilitation. For the first-time policy possibility discussion facilitator there are often concerns about pulling discussions together and creating a positive discussion group. We often lump many of these considerations under the heading of “recruitment”.

A first time discussion facilitator often finds the first hurdle to be explaining to prospective participants why they should give up a few evenings or weekends to yack about policy. Your explanation must make sense to you and give a prospect a sense of how you are approaching the discussion. Here’s what I tell them:

“You’ll be helping me in the work of understanding and improving public discussion, helping me be a better ‘trainer’ in exercising your ‘civic muscle’, and, maybe, helping in revitalizing a discussion tradition in American democracy.”

Does this pitch grab them all? No, but it works often enough with enough different types of people that I seldom have trouble recruiting for discussions. Find the “sales pitch” that works for you.

Where does one start in recruiting? Here are some tips that I have gleaned from colleagues that may work for you:

  • Recruit to and through a venue- a coffee shop or café owner may know just the sorts of people you are looking for and may have a good discussion location.
  • Check out existing groups- there may be civic organizations or communities of faith that are open to discussion, maybe they are looking for programs.
  • Be clear about the type and tone of discussion- these are not gripe sessions or debates, there is a civic learning here that requires open minds and good listening skills.
  • Get to know them- even brief phone conversations or a cup of coffee with a prospect can give you an idea if the fit is right and some sense of how to draw them out in discussion.
  • Find natural “connectors”- some people are just great hosts and organizers and can be magnets for wonderful discussions in their homes.

How you recruit will also be influenced by the discussion topic, your sense of recruiting for diversity (diversity of opinion may be one way, diversity of backgrounds may be another), and whether you are engaged in a one-shot discussion series or looking toward longer term community dialogue. It may seem like a quaint notion, but I have found people who are hungry for this sort of thing.