When Covid-19 struck right in the middle of the Climate Assembly UK process the organisers quickly adapted and took it online. A follow up survey with participants found that most participants preferred a mixed approach, with some face to face and some online elements. One aspect participants mentioned was the ‘buzz’ of a face-to-face meeting, something we’ve been reflecting on and trying to better define.
“It is better meeting in person, you know people are focused and there is a buzz missing from the internet meetings.”
When you facilitate a workshop in person, and it’s going well, you quickly become aware of an atmosphere of excitement in the room. This can be caused by a mixture of lots of different things, and as I started to write them down, I realised that underlying all these things is emotion. Emotion is something that we often ignore or try to minimise in professional settings, but it’s a critical part of what differentiates deliberative process, which are explicitly concerned not just with WHAT people think but why they think it, how they express it, and whether it changes. There’s a lot going on in a deliberative conversation beyond simple statements of opinion, or as Graham Smith described in a recent conversation with Lyn Carson:
“Deliberation isn’t a single thing. It’s a bunch of different things that happen; it’s the learning, generating ideas, listening, hearing and creating things together.”
n our experience, this bunch of things (and more) all have an emotional component:
- Learning: One of the things we hear most often in feedback from deliberative events is that people enjoy the experience of learning. For most adults learning completely new topics just isn’t part of their daily lives, so it’s a stimulating and exciting process.
- Changing minds: Deliberative processes are based on the idea that views can change, over time, through exposure to new ideas, new information, new arguments, or simply in different contexts. That’s the fundamental difference between dialogic or deliberative communication, which aims to explore the differences in opinion in a relative frame, and dialectic, which poses statements in opposition to each other – as in this model we use to teach deliberative practice.
The point here is that evaluating our opinions and changing our minds isn’t something most of us experience on a regular basis – and in safe and trusting settings changing your mind can be fun, liberating, and exciting. There can also be a range of other emotions – some negative (I have felt shame, anger, and disappointment before) but the bottom line is that there are emotions involved.
- Forming relationships. Whether this is connecting with someone like-minded, or navigating a new acquaintance who holds very different views to your own, forming relationships is a key part of a deliberative process, particularly in the mini-public or representative model where we explicitly bring together a mix of people much wider than your typical social circle.
- Expressing an opinion: Firstly, the act of forming and expressing your opinion is a social and political act, that many people aren’t encouraged or supported to do. Expressing your opinion in a public space can be scary and exciting if it’s something you’re not used to doing.
- Being heard: Secondly, your opinion being heard by others, being considered, written down, and reported on, suddenly turns it - and you – into something and someone that matters. We know from feedback from many participants in deliberative processes over the years that this experience of being heard, and your view being openly valued, can be immensely powerful. It’s important not to confuse deliberative engagement with therapeutic processes, but some of the principles, like active listening and validation of a persons experience, are similar.
So, is it possible to enable this emotional experience online? Within the Leaving Lockdown debate, we are certainly enabling most of the above. The one that is arguably hardest is supporting participants to form relationships with each other. There are no opportunities for side conversations, for quick chats in the coffee breaks, and the conversation on video conference is necessarily slower than in real-life, with fewer visual cues. We’ve been thinking about how we might do this in future projects:
- “Social” meet ups with participants. As part of the process, but ensuring that at least one session is just focused on getting to know each other.
- Paired work or work in threes. In face-to-face, we often use short activities in pairs or threes to give people a different dynamic of working together, and to help build trust. There are ways we could build this into the online process.
- Shared activities. In a similar way to the above, we could set participants activities that they must complete in pairs or small groups away from the main sessions.
- Chat forums. We haven’t yet used this within this project, as it’s such a short timeframe, and we wanted to focus on simple discrete tasks for participants to start off with. However, it’s something we may well build in, and we know from previous work can then result in valuable trust building and deliberation outside of the main sessions.
We’re interested in any other ideas for supporting online “buzz” and building relationships between participants – if you’ve tried something recently, do let us know.