Designing for Engagement
My friend and colleague, Chris Corrigan, just posted a wonderful reflection on “container”, a word often used by dialogue practitioners to describe the spaces we seek to create for meaning to flow among participants. What I found particularly valuable was learning of another use of container that has virtually the opposite meaning. Quoting Chris:
in contexts of oppression and colonization the history of colonization, enclosure, and imprisonment is entirely the history of containing people; on reserves, in jails, in schools, in groups defined by race and marked by lines, in ghettoized neighbourhoods, in a million places in which people are contained, enclosed and deprived of their agency and freedom to create and maintain boundaries.
If you want to learn more, read this rich reflection. Chris ends his piece by saying our work is to:
Understand where these spaces come from. Actively work to invite more self-organization and emergence into these spaces that are in service of life, love and liberation.
He inspired me to articulate what I have learned about creating such spaces. My approach is informed by studying complexity (see Engaging Emergence), interactions with practitioners and practices that successfully create conditions for novel and attractive responses to complex challenges to emerge (see The Change Handbook), and from my own work in communities and organizations.
In a nutshell, we create space in the ways we…
NAME PURPOSE. Expressed in a possibility-oriented question, purpose attracts those who care. When dealing with uncertainty or conflict, I find such questions create a bubble in the storm, room for people to be curious and generous with each other even when scared or angry. Among my influences into this aspect:
- David Cooperrider’s research that led to Appreciative Inquiry, most notably his brilliant essay Positive Image/Positive Action.
- Fred Polak’s Image of the Future. His research found that cultures die within a generation if they cease to have a positive image of their future.
- My discovery that 100% of the methods we included in The Change Handbook involve an aspirational focus.
INVITE THE DIVERSITY OF THE SYSTEM. I find this the most challenging, time consuming, and often rewarding aspect of creating conditions for addressing complex issues. Harrison Owen, creator of Open Space Technology, puts it simply: invite the people who care. Marv Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, creators of Future Search, add more bones, suggesting we invite the people who “ARE IN” — with Authority, Resources, Expertise, Information, and Need. I also work with organizers to discern the demographic diversity vital to exploring their question. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education’s Fault Lines is a helpful way to think about demographic diversity: race, gender, class, generation, geography, as well religion and political affiliation.
WELCOME WHO AND WHAT SHOWS UP. Juanita Brown taught me about this one, with her research into the workings of The World Café. Just greeting people at the door can change the tone. Or, as a café host working in immigrant communities shared with me, putting table cloths from participants’ countries of origin in the room set the stage for rich exchanges. I continue to learn from her principle of hospitality, amazed that attending to how an invitation is constructed or how a room is set speaks volumes about who belongs, who has the power to speak.
Having set the stage to engage…
Our work is to design for people to bring their full-voiced, authentic selves and connect with others. The Change Handbook is a testament to the myriad ways we can engage to address complex challenges.
To learn or work together, reflect…
We discover what is arising among us when we periodically reflect together. It’s a virtuous cycle that enables us to build on what came before.
When people start talking about “us”, when an image emerges that embodies our collective aspirations, I know we, as designers, have done work that supports communities to thrive.
A more in-depth version of these ideas is here.
Edited on 1/31/31 to fix a broken link.