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From Constituents to Community

My work in communities has focused on what I call “humanizing public conversation.” The goal is to help leaders convene collaborative public dialog. Why “humanizing”? Because in community conversations, we often see each other as objects rather than real people, making empathy and understanding difficult. Human beings are hard-wired for empathy and yearn for authentic community, so humanizing a conversation is within reach. Here are three principles to build relatedness and deepen community.


Core Principles

Connection before content

We usually step right into debate when gathering to discuss a public issue. Differences inevitably arise, which generally decreases cooperation. Instead of diving into content, ask a connection question within five minutes of starting a meeting: “Why is it important for you to be here today?” or “What do you love about this neighborhood?” (You can go around the room, have people turn to a partner, or have chairs pre-arranged in groups of three.)


When you shift into content, continue to deepen connection by breaking people into groups of three to share a lived experience of the issue at hand. This helps people relate as neighbors and understand their respective challenges.


Connection should also come after content. Don’t let people drift away when the meeting ends; ask a question that reconnects them as a community despite any disagreement: “What did this conversation mean to you?” or “What did you learn today?”  Or ask, “What gift did you receive during the gathering today?”


One client transformed her monthly status conferences into a community-building process that transformed a city’s approach to drug abuse; she opened and closed the one-hour meetings with the following questions: “What community project inspired you this past month?” and “What gift did you receive from someone during this past hour?”


Ask great questions 

Starting conversations with a solution tends to create distance among those gathered. Moreover,  how you frame a problem defines the debate. For example, a conversation can vary dramatically depending on whether you frame a concern about safety as an economic problem, a drug problem, a police problem, a community engagement problem, or a youth problem. When you define the problem without public input, you’ve already lost the room. 


Therefore, to start a public conversation, ask people to tell the story of a lived experience of the problem or issue. Stories communicate much more information than statements, especially context and emotions, and they help people see each other as fellow human beings trying to live a good life (rather than embodied arguments making us wrong). Moreover, stories illuminate the varied contexts in which an issue arises; e.g., stories about children being caught in a crossfire or lured into gangs, drug addicts committing robberies, and businesses struggling because of crime hotspots help identify potential frameworks for the problem. It is also important to caution people not to be helpful, give advice, or blame anyone.


These stories postpone asking the public for solutions, which often leads to posturing, rigid positions, and less cooperation. To avoid the polarization of positional debate and build a foundation for creative problem-solving, always ask why an issue matters to people. One local village council heard arguments for weeks and still couldn’t decide whether to give a zoning exception to a resident who wanted to raise chickens. It was only when someone asked, “Why would we want to allow chickens in our village?” did council members realize that council members realize that “blue-collar millennials” wanted to raise chickens in urban neighborhoods where they have access to great jobs. And why was that important? The village needed young families to replace an aging population! Repeatedly asking “Why?” when people offer solutions will help everyone understand what really matters to a community. These values then become the ingredients that allow people to craft solutions that work for everyone


There are many questions that stimulate conversations that matter and build community. For example, “What are your doubts?” allows challenges to be addressed in the room rather than become gossip after the meeting; “What can we do together that we can’t do alone?” prevents people from defending their turf; “What question, if answered, would lead to a breakthrough on this issue?” stops debate and provides a low-risk method to practice coming to agreement.  

Asking people to develop a collective identity also helps people work cooperatively toward mutually beneficial solutions rather than argue over who has the right answer. When groups know in their bones who they are together, collective strategies emerge organically. For example:

- When its funding ended, the professionally-run Urban Appalachian Council survived as the volunteer-driven Urban Appalachian Community Coalition because it realized that it wasn’t just a human service organization –– it was a community holding a torch for Appalachian arts, culture, and values.

- Houses on my city street sold fast even with the neighborhood in decline because we identified ourselves as an “urban eco-village” full of composters, a farm share, and trails through the woods; people wanted to live in community with those who shared their values.

Asking “Who are we?” or “Who do we want to become?” reframes a community as a collective entity with an inherent purpose. Groups with a strong identity can better weather challenges to staying connected.


People support what they co-create

Everyone uses the language of “buy-in,” but this approach frames the leader as a supplier and the community as the consumer. Such transactions lead to buyer’s remorse rather than citizen responsibility. Co-creation must be explicit at the start (identifying the underlying problem) and focused on core motivations (understanding what matters). It must include all voices, with special invitations to those on the margins of society. Co-creation means “do nothing about us without us” –– including the development of the process by which people are engaged. Co-creation never ends, because people must collectively address the inevitable challenges of post-decision implementation.


But what does co-creation look like? It's messy and stressful; ideas spiral in and out of focus, and uncertainty reigns until it doesn’t. In this context, a leader as convener should: (1) not take the group’s problems personally, even as you reflect on how to do better; (2) hold space for people’s anxieties; and (3) follow a clear process that focuses people on the small step in front of them.


This means that leaders should take time to draw out and validate what matters most to people. You must be attentive to the group’s energy and name what’s happening –– murmuring tension, bubbling enthusiasm, or silent doubts –– so you can ask small groups to explore it.

But most importantly, the process must be genuine and curious. I use a “why, what, how” model so people aren’t distracted by the definitions of vision, mission, and strategy. Always start with “why” (core motivation) before identifying  “what” (tangible goals). I’ve taught community organizing to civic garden leaders for years, and they are always amazed when they realize how many different “why” statements can animate a garden group: to provide nutrition to urban food deserts, engage youth, inspire cross-generation connections, or beautify a neighborhood (to name just a few).


Let’s say that a group identifies “engage youth” as its “why” statement for creating a community garden (broad and vague is ok early on). The next step is to ask small groups to explore “what” achievement might mean the most to the community as a whole. Ideas could include keeping students in school, teaching them to garden, improving their nutrition, or connecting them to the neighborhood through beautification efforts. Each whole-group discussion on what struck people is an opportunity to build clarity and refine focus. Ask questions such as “What picture is emerging from this conversation?” or “Where do we agree?” Repeat this small group/whole group sharing  process until something crystalizes (you will feel the energy shift when it does).


With clear goals, a group can begin exploring “how” to achieve them. Because co-creation is usually slow, you need to feed people’s need for action as you figure out your “how.” Most people don’t see conversation as an action step, so be expansive about how you define accomplishment and call out your simple successes: getting to know each other, identifying where you agree or disagree, seeing all of your options, identifying any part of your why/what/how, or surfacing/resolving tension in the group.


Failure and Faith

Over twenty years I’ve noticed a paradox: these three principles will improve public conversation, but something extra is always needed for any particular group to stay together and make a difference. Failure and conflict are inevitable, but when used properly by the convener, they provide an opportunity to metabolize the trauma that keeps us apart. A leader as convener needs the courage to ask people how they contribute to the problem while doing the same thing with their leadership style. For me, such courage comes from faith in the power of community –– that when a conversation is humanized, a group conscience will emerge to guide me and the group through our pain and disagreement. Nothing works all the time, but I have faith in the power of conversation to humanize people and inspire cooperation.


About the Author

Jeffrey L. Stec, J.D., is Executive Director of Citizens for Civic Renewal, which partners with municipal governments and school districts to train leaders to facilitate collaborative decision-making between internal and external stakeholders. For more information see and JeffreyStec.com or reach out to Jeff at jeffreystec@gmail.com.


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