Don’t be afraid… I dare you to start the conversation

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I had the pleasure of independently facilitating a challenging event with a challenging topic on Saturday. The topic was nuclear energy so as you can imagine I was braced to put my facilitation, moderation and mediation skills to the test.

Interestingly, the Council who hosted the event (The Corporation of the Town of Walkerville) had decided to invite four scientific professionals to speak on the topic – all putting forward their arguments as to why they are in favour of nuclear energy.

As you can imagine, this decision caused outrage particularly given the Council had also chosen to promote the event using a cartoon image of a couple questioning whether they should have a nuclear reactor in the backyard. The flyer itself attracted media attention and the RSVPs were flowing in, so we were expecting a big crowd. We were also aware that protesters would be present – something which I completely understood, given the pro-nuclear slant the afternoon was taking.

One of the first questions I ask my clients when I undertake a piece of work for them is ‘what is the decision to be made?’ but in this instance there was no decision. The decision as to whether Australia should have nuclear power was way way out of these decision-makers hands. This was simply a case of the Mayor having heard an interesting public lecture on the topic and wanting to bring the conversation to Walkerville. There was no intention for a nuclear reactor in Walkerville – it was just a conversation about a topic that is of interest (or dis-interest!) to our population. I did question why they had chosen to hear only the pro-argument as in most instances you would hear from both those in favour and those against and I must confess I was a little apprehensive as to how it was going to pan out.

I’m pleased to report that the afternoon was a success. I have no interest in whether peoples opinions changed as a result of it because being completely independent that wasn’t my mission – so this isn’t my measure of success. My mission was to guide the speakers, the Council and the audience through the discussion and this happened in a calm, considered and incredibly civilised manner. As at the majority of events I facilitate on controversial topics, I was expecting questions from the audience to be more like long statements of opinions but no – we had short succinct and very well composed questions. The panel members respondent with the same tone. It was a conversation… a real conversation!

I don’t know whether the success of the event was because we planned for worst case scenarios; because we laid down some fairly hefty structure and guidelines for the running of the session; or even because the idea of hearing just one side of the argument meant there wasn’t the back and forth debate like watching a game of tennis.

My biggest learning from the event was in relation to the courage shown by the Mayor of Walkerville to host a public conversation on a controversial topic. She took a great deal of personal flack for her decision but went ahead nevertheless. From the feedback received she is of course considering hosting an event looking specifically at the ‘anti-nuclear’ argument.

My wish for the future is that more Government organisations and departments don’t shy away from the difficult conversations but instead take them on (with thorough and sound planning of course). I also hope more start to use scenario based questioning as Walkerville did. The mundane questions we see again and again in public engagement activity (What’s your vision for the future? How can we better serve you?) can only be described as weak and pathetic when you compare them to ‘What about a nuclear reactor in your backyard?’.

Yes, this particular event was fictional as far as Walkerville’s decision-making goes but imagine the lively discussion and debate that would occur if instead we looked the REAL issues in the eye and ran at them with great gusto! If Walkerville can pack out a town hall with a diverse crowd on a Saturday afternoon on a long weekend, then perhaps we’ve got something to learn from them.

For those interested in the nuclear debate, and hearing about the event from one of the speakers perspectives, visit Decarbonise SA.

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