Last month, facilitation experts from UNH Cooperative Extension and the Carsey Institute’s NH Listens worked with actors to practice new strategies for navigating difficult or contentious community conversations. Molly Donovan explains.
Civil discourse is challenging these days. Those of us who work in local communities have been called upon to use our facilitation skills to ensure discussions can be civil, productive and inclusive. Perhaps you have been to a community meeting where people argue, don’t listen or the discussion takes a direction that was not relevant to the topic at hand. If you have experienced this, then you know just how frustrating these meetings can be and you may have seen the lack of decision-making which results. Those of us who lead community discussions feel challenged as people turn to us to use our facilitation skills to keep the conversations on track.
Extension staff employ strong facilitation skills in their work in local communities, whether the community focus is natural resource protection, community planning or growing a business sector. The tricks of the trade are useful, but in this time when people are polarized on national, state and local issues, we’re always looking for ways to improve our handling of difficult conversations. What better a way to improve than through practice in a safe environment with trained actors rather than a real-life situation where there is heated conversation over a contentious issue?
On June 12, 25 UNH Cooperative Extension and NH Listens participants gathered at the Memorial Union Building with David Kaye and his theatre group, Powerplay Interactive Development, to engage in a unique training experience. Powerplay presented a typical community discussion about an issue of local importance that might occur in any community, only this community was fictional. Extension and NH Listens participants were invited to join the actors or to comment and critique the action as a way to learn different techniques in facilitating a small group.
The idea for the training sprang from Kaye, chair of the UNH Department of Theatre and Dance, who reached out to us with the idea of using applied theatre as a tool for strengthening local participation and democracy. We loved the idea and its potential for helping facilitators improve group sessions, experiment with strategies to work through challenges, and strengthen their abilities to see and hear what is being communicated by participants in a group setting.
The actors did an amazing job of presenting true-to-life characters in a public setting, which allowed for lively interaction, discussion, laughter, and sharing of expertise by all present.
Participants learned new skills that they will apply to their work in communities, a sure sign that discussions, dialogues and decision-making across the state will get better and better.
Molly Donovan is extension specialist in community and economic development for UNH Cooperative Extension.
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