The Town Hall works well for meetings with a business function, but it’s not the best format for sorting out complex questions. Here are some alternative conversation styles that make room for a deeper discussion and ensure that everyone can be heard.
Below are brief snapshots of five alternative types of conversations. See the link to our toolkit (below) for a full writeup and some instructions to help you prepare.
The Talking circle
A staple in Canadian Indigenous leadership circles, the talking circle shows up in many cultures around the world. Restorative Justice groups also feature this style as a natural way for people to listen to each other and to nurture a collective flow of community wisdom, action and healing.
Description: Participants typically sit in a circle on chairs or on the ground with no table or other obstructions. People take turns speaking with no interruptions or direct responses allowed. Ordinarily, the conversation can go around the circle twice, but more is certainly permitted if there is time and interest.
Strengths of this model: Enables good and respectful listening even in very contentious situations. There is a natural flow and movement to this style of conversation that generates understanding, respect and a release of tension.
Simple and easy to plan, the conversation café is also one of the more natural ways for people to talk together deeply, with opportunity to listen and respond in a free-flowing way to each other’s fears, ideas and questions.
Description: People sit at tables where they are presented with a menu. That menu might feature one or more questions for them to consider together. Each group has space to record their observations; perhaps on paper tablecloths. After a time, members move from that table to another to reflect on the same question with a new group of people. Often a second ‘course’ is also presented with another conversation menu for people to consider.
The Quaker Straw Vote
Ideal for a small gathering like a board meeting. This model aids in identifying where people stand and to their degree of conviction, and then provides opportunity for them to speak to each other’s concerns.
Description: Each person is given four votes represented by coloured paper (suggested): Green – yes!; Blue – yes, but…; Red – No, but I won’t stand in the way; Black – No! I’ll be six-feet under before I let that go!
The chair or facilitator then hosts a conversation asking diffferent persons why they voted as they did, and then asking another person who voted differently to share what they would say to that person to help resolve their concerns. Vote can be shown more than once to track the flow of thought in the room. Helps get the issues out.
The Roman Carousel
Description: A number of topics are assigned to different tables for group discussion. Each table group then debates the issue and formulates some thoughts and ideas. At the appointed time, each table appoints two ambassadors to field the group’s thoughts with other tables and records responses. Rotation continues until they return to their own table. Each table group then formulates a report of their findings. Great for building a body of knowledge!
The consensus workshop.
An important tool for collecting and processing the wisdom of the group in a participatory way so that the community themselves generate a consensus about the way forward.
Example: Consensus Workshop around the question: What would a healthy neighbourhood response to a new affordable housing project look like?
- Individual response time – 5 minutes to record gut reaction on a sheet of paper.
- Table listens to the top three items from each individual’s list, then chooses five or six main responses for sharing with the larger group.
- Responses are submitted on cards in batches to the facilitator and clustered together in a visible way as the group thinks best.
- As main themes and points begin to come clear, the group helps frame key summaries of each area.
- The group decides what the next steps should be.
- After the meeting, facilitator organizes the information into a report summarizing the group’s learnings and provides it to the participants.
Time required: at least one hour. Requires a facilitator trained in this model.