It's a common complaint we hear from community leaders. "We can't get people to show up for meetings." It's ironic that people really do want community connections but, for a lot of reasons, don't always come to the table to talk about community life.
Jody Horntvedt, Extension Leadership and Civic Engagement Educator, unpacks the problem for us in this episode of Vital Connections on Air. And she shares nuts-and-bolts advice about creating healthy conversations in your community. From where to hold meetings to how to extend the invitation, you can make community conversations more successful.
"She knew her conversations were successful when people started waving to each other on the street again."
— Jody Horntvedt
- Christy Kallevig, Extension educator
University of Minnesota Extension, Center for Community Vitality
- Jody Horntvedt, Extension educator, leadership and civic engagement
University of Minnesota Extension, Center for Community Vitality
- Use the Community Vitality page as your go-to resource for help in your community work.
- Discover study circle guides on Everyday Democracy to help you lead a conversation in your community on a variety of topics.
- Find helpful tools on The Art of Hosting for holding conversations.
- Explore some of Jody’s favorite books on the topic of community conversations:
Read this episode's conversation below.
Note: Our Vital Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.
Christy Kallevig: Welcome to Vital Connections On Air, a podcast brought to you by University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality that explores the trends and topics important to communities and leaders throughout Minnesota. My name is Christy Kallevig and I'm an Extension educator with the Center for Community Vitality, and today I'm excited to be joined by one of my colleagues, Jody Horntvedt, who is an Extension educator working in the area of leadership and civic engagement. Welcome to the podcast, Jody.
Jody Horntvedt: Hello Christy. I'm really glad to join you today.
Christy Kallevig: Great. And today we're going to talk about community conversations, but before we get into that, why don't you introduce yourself and let folks know what type of work you do within Extension.
Jody Horntvedt: Okay. Well, you already mentioned that I'm an Extension educator in leadership and civic engagement and have been in that position for actually several years now as part of my role in Extension. I've done most of my work in northwest and west central Minnesota, working with leadership cohort programs, including the Red River Valley Emerging Leadership Program, which I've been now involved with for about 26 years of my career, which connects me to rural leaders across that region. I've also done a lot of work around facilitating difficult conversations, working with watersheds in the Red River Basin around flooding and other water-related issues. On top of that, just multiple ways of engaging with people and encouraging and training people for community conversations, which is what we're going to talk about today.
Christy Kallevig: Yeah. And you know, I think that folks are very, obviously very comfortable with the idea of having a conversation. We have them with our friends, our family, our co-workers every day. But what is the difference between a conversation that you and I might have and then taking it to that next level of a community conversation?
Jody Horntvedt: Well, you know, this notion of having that individual conversation in comfortable places, usually with the people we know and we have those relationships with. When we bring that up to a community level, it is about, sometimes a discomfort that people have because I don't know those people or I'm not sure how I fit into that place. So people deal with all sorts of those kinds of things, but I think that that notion of having that community conversation can be so powerful because it does allow us to build relationships with new people, learn about what's going on in their life and also how people can contribute to a better community that comes out of the results of those conversations.
Christy Kallevig: And so what would you say is kind of the value or maybe the value added to a community for creating space for these kinds of conversations to occur?
Jody Horntvedt: Well, I'd say that conversation is so powerful. Conversation more than any other form of human interaction is the place where we learn, we exchange ideas, we can offer resources, we can create innovation. So it just can be a very powerful thing. Conversation like I mentioned earlier, also gives us the opportunity to get to know each other better. And when we engage with each other many times the outcome is increased trust between people and then across the community. You know, I've gained over the years my inspiration of around that power of a conversation actually through a couple of people whose books I've read, one of those being Peter Block, and he has a book called, Community: The Structure of Belonging. And he taught that value of coming together in these three distinct points. He says, “We build the social fabric of our community by transforming isolation into connectedness.” You know that coming together piece. He says that when we have community conversations we shift from the problems of the community to the possibilities, which I think is so powerful. And then we really, we kind of commit to each other about creating the next place we're going and not dwelling on the past, but thinking about the future.
Christy Kallevig: You know, bringing up that isolation point, do you think that our communities are in a unique space right now where community conversations are needed or are more important?
Jody Horntvedt: I do believe that. I feel as if that notion of coming together…in fact, I'm going to go back in time a little bit. I remember growing up, we would have conversations much more readily and it was part of our nature or our culture. On a Sunday afternoon, we'd go visit the neighbors or we would as a family often do that and we would talk about things, about our hopes, our dreams and just engage with each other and get to know each other. And as peoples’ lives have gotten busy or shifted or just the discourse that's going on or maybe not going on, depending on your perspective in our country these days. I think the opportunity to have a conversation is even more needed to be able to bring that together because people feel shut down, I think. They don't feel comfortable maybe talking about how they feel, because they're not sure how people will respond.
Christy Kallevig: And that fear can kind of hold people back, right, from engaging in the conversations or reaching out to others?
Jody Horntvedt: Right. You know, people don't feel like they fit in or that their opinion is different than someone else's and so I'm just not going to say anything, and that sort of a spiraling down or that shutting down can be really damaging for communities if people don't have or feel they have a voice any longer. And so I think that for me, what I personally value most about conversations is actually the positives, upwards spiraling effect that it can have. So, I see it kind of works like this: Conversations give us the opportunity to get to know each other better. And then when we get to know each other better, trust is developed and strengthened. And, when trust is developed and strengthened, then we're more open to sharing our hopes and our fears with each other. And when we're open to sharing hopes and fears, I believe we're better able to support each other. And when we're better able to support each other, then we are better together.
Christy Kallevig: I really like how you laid that out. I think that that's a great way to look at it. And you have done this on a variety of different levels. And I was fortunate enough to work with you on some community conversations up in Northwestern Minnesota with a project, the Cultivating Community Conversations for Change and that was a really great experience. When you think back across your years doing this work, what do those community conversations look like?
Jody Horntvedt: Well, they look a little different everywhere. That sense of though … usually there's a convener or a reason to convene and extending that invitation needs to happen. I know I always used to joke years ago, but that little joke has never gone away. It's like people would say to me, how do we get people to show up? How do we get people to come to this conversation? Don't people care? And I said, I believe people care. It's just that there's always busy-ness, there's things going on in their life and if they don't feel comfortable or that their voice matters, maybe [they’re] not going to show up. And so I always used to joke with people to say, "Let's create a community controversy and invite people to come to the meeting." And then say, “Oh, surprise, there's no controversy, but since we're here, can we talk about X?” And I could never get anyone to buy into that, but it seems like when people feel that anxiety over something that's happening and there's frustration, they'll show up for that kind of stuff, but when it comes to just sitting and having a conversation about what really matters, they're less likely to show up. So I think the biggest thing to be mindful of is to think about, how do we extend the invitation?
Christy Kallevig: And so what are some tips that you would give folks for extending the invitation? Because obviously, it's hard to have a conversation if you aren't able to get people in the room with you.
Jody Horntvedt: Right. Well, I think as you think about inviting people, you have to pay attention to what might be the barriers, to think about that because it can be challenging to invite people. Many people have experienced meetings that wasted their time, right? Or conversations that felt like debates and there was a win, lose or “we're right, you're wrong” situation. Or there were invitations to offer input on something and then it turned out to be, “Oh, we just, that's not, you know?” The letter of invitation said, “We want your input on Topic X” and then you got there and it wasn't that. And so, there's those things going on. In extending the invitation you just need to be mindful of the baggage that people bring to what conversations they've experienced have been. And it's also important to think before you extend that invitation about how conversations can be difficult because sometimes things come up that we're not prepared for. We may not know how to handle that. So I think that extending the invitation needs to include a few key elements, like naming the possibility about why you're convening and being specific about what we would ask of people should they choose to attend; making the invitation as personal as possible; and letting people know that if you're not able to accept this, that's okay too. Maybe the next conversation might be the one that they can be a part of.
Christy Kallevig: Right. And I like something that you said in there earlier about thinking before the invitation. And so let's even take one more step back. What do folks need to think about before actually even sending out the invitation? What are some of those things that if you want to have a conversation in your community that you need to prepare or work through before starting the process?
Jody Horntvedt: Well, I think of these as maybe the key… I'll say keys for success or traps to avoid—either.
Christy Kallevig: Okay.
Jody Hornvedt: So I think the key, some of the keys for success are asking yourself or others who might be looking to host a conversation with you, is to really ask who should be a part of the conversation. And be really thoughtful about getting the representation of voices not typically at the table or who might have a stake in what's going on in this community or who maybe has a perspective that we'd like to hear.
Christy Kallevig: So making sure it's not your usual group of people that you're having supper with.
Jody Horntvedt: Right. Because if you invite the same old same old people, you're going to get the same old, same old conversation, but when you invite others to that table, you gain insights into your community through a new lens, through new eyes. And I have an example of that. I can come back to some of the other keys for success. But, and you know this story too, Christy, when we did the C-4 check, that cultivating communities conversations for change. One of the communities were hosting one of those conversations and there was an example given about how this person had moved to the community and they were a teacher at the school. The community was so excited that they had moved there and they were welcomed in so many ways and people showed up and helped them offer to move into their house.
And you know, all those things that were a part of a welcoming community. And as the circle went around and they were having conversations, there was a single mom in the room who had recently moved to the community because she lost her job somewhere else and couldn't make payments on the rent on her home. And she ended up moving into this community and she said, well, “You described that situation, but that wasn't my experience in this community. I showed up and it was as if I didn't exist. No one offered to help. No one said, can we, is there anything you need? No one stopped by to welcome.” And everybody in the room just, they weren't prepared for that, but this woman was willing to share that. And it opened everyone's eyes. And so I think when we think about who needs to be a part of the conversation, we need to think about who's not typically there and the perspective that they may bring that helps us think about our community differently is powerful.
Christy Kallevig: And I love that story just because it's very powerful to hear that and how different one person's experience can be from another. The other thing that I love about that story, and I think it leads into something that folks need to think about before there are people in the room, is they created a safe space for that woman to feel like she could share that story. And so how do you go about creating that space as you're pre-planning to make sure that people feel that they can share those stories and share their individual experiences because they might be different than the majority?
Jody Horntvedt: Well, I think before people even show up in the room, is to think about where you're holding the conversation. And is it in a space where those who might not normally be part of the conversation are comfortable showing up? For example, in our small rural communities, there's not always a lot of spaces to hold those conversations. Right?
Christy Kallevig: Right.
Jody Horntvedt: And so sometimes you have to go with what you have. But in some instances, people will say, "Well, let's meet at the school." [But for] other people, meeting at the school is very anxiety producing.
Jody Hornvedt: They didn't have a good school experience, they don't feel educated enough. They just had things that went on in their life that they're not comfortable being in that space. It can also happen with church basements or another commonplace in rural communities because there's tables, there's chairs, there's a place to have refreshments, those things. But it might be that initial person, again, the people you're trying to invite may not feel comfortable in that space. And so sometimes that's the biggest challenge is thinking about where you're going to host the conversation. And the other piece is part of the extending the invitation, which is another key of making that a space where they can be in and knowing that if they need to bring their children that that's okay. Or you make arrangements for kids to be off somewhere so that the adults can have that peace. The time of day when you hold it if they're shift workers or people who have different types of jobs, you need to think about all of those elements.
Christy Kallevig: So spending time thinking about the barriers that exist and what steps you need to take to reduce them, right?
Jody Horntvedt: Exactly, and making that to be the most welcoming, safe space. That's even before the conversation begins. The safety also occurs when you're in this space and how we set out some basic guidelines for what we need to happen in terms of providing that safe space for people to share and not be put down by others or minimized in some way. So there are conversation guidelines that may need to be put into place as well.
Christy Kallevig: Right. So, let's keep moving through the process. We've done some pre-planning, we've invited a diverse group of people to join us for this conversation. Now, what? What does the structure of a community conversation look like? Is there a structure I guess?
Jody Horntvedt: Well, I think if you're inviting a conversation often it's part of that, just a little bit more of that pre-planning is to think about what's the conversation that we want to have. And so in order to invite people, [one needs] be able to think about that. So when you think about the structure of that conversation than when we're in the room, often there are actually study community conversation guides out there, so you could either go a very structured route to say we want to talk about a healthy community, or we want to talk about the diversity in this community, or we want to talk about youth challenges in this community. So sometimes people will invite the conversation around a specific topic for doing that. And so you want to think about that upfront. But if you have that, you can either go that more structured route and there are resources out there that come prepared with conversation questions that you can guide people through to move in that space. Or you can create your own and have more of an open space method where you just invite people to come to the table and share what's in their heads and in their hearts about community and leave it very open in that way. Both require preparation and thinking through what those questions might be, but they have a totally different way of approaching that.
Christy Kallevig: And we will put some links up on our webpage that folks can access some of those tools that you mentioned, whether it's a source for a study guide, or it's the open space or open conversation techniques.
Jody Horntvedt: And either one of those work. And so being able to share in that way and think about what's the conversation that you want to have is really important.
Christy Kallevig: Is there a good number of times that a group should get together for these conversations? Or is it just a one-time gathering and you're done?
Jody Horntvedt: Well, I have a preference on that. I think the more the merrier. I think that if that first conversation opens up people's thinking and they feel that sense of connection and they feel welcomed, that having an ongoing conversation is actually a much better scenario than coming together one time. Because in that first time you're just getting to explore the relationships you have with one another and people are not likely to fully open up at that first meeting because they don't know each other. And I don't know what the research says around trust, but, on this particular issue, I remember hearing once from a woman who was doing a workshop on conflict and she said that around trust, the highest level of trust is related to the lowest level of trust between any two people in a group.
Christy Kallevig: That is correct.
Jody Horntvedt: And, you know, I can't cite the research on that, but that element of knowing that and so you're not going to switch that or change that in one conversation. And it will take a couple of conversations and I believe that the richness of the conversation happens after three or possibly four times of coming together with the same people in the room because then there becomes this comfortableness about, "Okay, I feel comfortable in this space, I think I could share this." And the creativity that then begins coming out of that when you're truly listening, because that's the other piece when you're in the room is really listening to what's being said. Not just the words, but that body language or sensing what's underlying what people are saying.
Christy Kallevig: Great. So we are very much, and you and I have talked about this several times, we are a culture of doing. You know, we like our checklists, we want to cross things off. And so sitting with a group of people might not feel like you're doing something, but that's really not accurate is it?
Jody Horntvedt: It's not. And I laughed, I didn't mean to laugh as you say that, but that culture of doing really gets in the way sometimes unless people frame the conversation as the doing. And the power of just coming together for a community conversation and learning about how other people are thinking about things, how they're engaging, what their hopes, their fears, their needs, their dreams, all of those pieces can truly be the doing because you've then built a relationship and you've built trust that sets you up for future action. And I think one of the traps that sometimes people get caught in when they're having those conversations is that they come preprogrammed with what the answer needs to be around topic X, whatever that topic is that you're convening the group around and not being open to the possibilities. And so they get so caught up in that power of doing — like we need to take action against, on, against, or for or around this topic — instead of allowing the conversation to flow and happen because the power of that is more ideas come forward in focusing on the conversation.
Christy Kallevig: Right. And I think that another thing that I have heard in the work that we've done together and other conversations that kind of feeds into that culture of doing is, “Well, how will I know if I've been a success? How will I know if this has worked?” Are there any clear ways to know that yes, your community conversation has been successful, or benchmarks that people should consider when starting this process?
Jody Horntvedt: Well, I would say that there are signs, sometimes subtle signs of success. Right? And so one of those signs is, did people come back to the second conversation; and the third and, you know, were they there and were they a part of that? So if your conversation was successful, people will have felt there was value in being a part of that and they've made that commitment to continue. And it even happens sometimes it's, what do you mean the conversation's done now? If it's been one of those prescriptive study circle type conversations, people say, “Oh, we just need to get together again” and that's a good sign because there was something that appealed to people about just being there in that space. So that's one way, that's one way of knowing. Another way is if people are inspired to take action, even though action may not have been part of your intent in having the conversation. They may be inspired to take action on something that came up and people say, “Oh, you know, we could do that. Wouldn't that be fun?” And everybody's pretty excited about being able to take that on. And so that's another way of knowing if that was successful. Does anything else come to mind for you?
Christy Kallevig: You know, I was visiting with someone who had used the study circle guide around Making it Home, which is something that we're doing in communities. And her response was that she knew that their study circle process was working when people started waving to each other again on the streets. You know, just those relationships that really come out of these conversations can be very powerful and it makes you feel like you're living in the Andy Griffith, small-town America all over again I think.
Jody Horntvedt: Well, you know, Christy, I've focused a lot for many years on social capital and the connections that people have and it really is around the trust and engagement. And so it really does fit as part of that community conversation, because what you're doing is you're strengthening social capital and those connections within community. And several years ago I was doing some filming of video stories about how do you build social capital, and one of those things around success was that, you know, you pull out of that is one of the business owners in a small town, actually, my hometown here, said, “You know, we don't, we need to have public spaces for people to come together for conversation and to get to know each other.” And then ultimately, you know, people are going to be inviting each other over to their house for dinner or for a conversation, because people don't invite people they don't know to their home, but once they get to know them. That sign of success is people are inviting each other over to their homes and they're interacting in new ways. It's kind of like the waving on the street only get it to that next level. So it's, that it has transcended from the conversation to just being human and being real and connecting with each other.
Christy Kallevig: Right. So you, like you said, you've been doing this for many years. Would you have one or two stories to share about communities that have gone through this process and what may be some of their outcomes were?
Jody Horntvedt: Which one to pull out? Right?
Christy Kallevig: Right.
Jody Horntvedt: I've been in a part of conversations that started in that same way and one of them, I actually was around dealing with school violence years ago and a group of people were coming together to talk about this. And in the course of that conversation, the people who came together, the school. The leadership of the school had called me and said, could you convene a conversation around this? We'd like to talk. And I said I would love to support you and convening it because, you know, that conversation of being sponsored by you it'd be really powerful. Right? So we worked on that. We convened a conversation and we sat there in the room and everybody said, “Well, we are always the same people who keep coming together around this topic. Why is that?You know, why don't other people care?" And I said, "Let's answer this question for all of us."
Jody Horntvedt: Would you be here if it wasn't for your job? Because it was people representing different agencies and organizations and services, and the hospital, and the school, and whatever. And everybody said, “Oh, you know, I might not have been because, you know, I this, I gave up this [event] with my kids for tonight because of this meeting.” And people started talking about that and they felt compelled to be there as part of their job. When we got to that basic level of asking, what would we be willing to commit? The answer was, "I'd be willing to come to one two-hour community forum." And so we created that space. We had over 100 people show up at that forum. And what was powerful about that, it wasn't just one conversation, a forum. It led to many sub-conversations around different topics all related to youth within the community. And that conversation went on for months and one of them went on for a couple of years around that very topic. And so that was a really powerful moment when people got to that heart of saying, what do we think people would commit to, let's do that. And that the overwhelming turnout and then follow up was just really powerful.
Christy Kallevig: That is a great story. And it just brings up a really good point as well that things are important to us each individually and we might have to think about how others are impacted or what draws us to that gathering and what we can do to open it up to others. As folks are listening to this and listening to the strategies to make it happen, they might be thinking, “This is a great idea, I just don't know if my community is ready to do something like this, to have a conversation.” I guess this is a two-part question, is a community ever fully ready for a conversation? And then the second part, what are some signs, I guess, that a community might be ready for this?
Jody Horntvedt: So I would say that the conversation can start anywhere. So I will start with that. So it could be that there's a public agency or institution that wants to sponsor community conversations and that's one way to approach it. And how do they know if their community is ready? I think that to be able to think about, is there energy around this topic that you're wanting to convene people, might be one way of looking at that. And being able to [determine if] we know a number of people that we could invite in who would be willing to invite other people. You know, the networks that people have and if there seems to be that willingness to do that strategy level, I think that that's one of the indicators that maybe you're ready to give that a try. I've also tried to, coming from an institutional perspective thinking this would be the best thing we need to have this community conversation…best thing that could ever happen… and then no one showed up. [It was] because sometimes it if it’s only our idea, and you haven't been able to have the conversation one- on-one with a few others to get that sense of where people are at, you may not be successful in launching that. Then the other side of this is that the community conversation doesn't have to be sponsored by an institution and an organization. It can just be people coming together who are interested in a topic, so anyone listening to this might say, you know, I'd like to learn a little bit more about what's the opportunities for youth are in this community.
Jody Horntvedt: Let's invite, and you could, as an individual invite a couple friends, talk it through with them and they'd say, “Yeah I'm interested in doing that or expanding those kinds of topics” and then each commit to inviting two people or three people to come to a conversation. And again, thinking outside of the box, if people who don't always come to a conversation, it can be as simple as that. And when you say readiness, if people are willing to say, “Yes, I'd like to talk about that, yes, I'd like to come together.” I think there's your readiness sign right there. You have the energy and the motivation for the topic and you have that willingness to include others. Those are two elements that I think are really key to getting started.
Christy Kallevig: And as we start to kind of close out our time here together today, Jody, you've inserted some keys or tips as well as some traps to avoid throughout the conversation. But are there any that are still on your mind that you would like folks to know as they think about a community conversation in their town?
Jody Horntvedt: I think if I were to boil down some of those elements, it goes back to the extending the invitation and to be thoughtful about who's at the table. A key to success is really making sure you're open to who's at the table and that you're open to possibilities of what might come from that. To not go in with a predetermined thought about what the outcome will be. When people go in thinking the outcome is going to be X, there's no need for a conversation.
Christy Kallevig: Right.
Jody Horntvedt: And I think that being able to do it in that way and think about those elements are just so powerful. If I could narrow it down to two things, as being mindful of who you invite, and how you invite them, and that notion of being open to the possibilities as you do that.
Christy Kallevig: Be open to the possibilities because there's so many out there, right?
Jody Horntvedt: Exactly. And we don't know them ourselves individually and that's the power of a community conversation.
Christy Kallevig: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Jody, and for talking about this topic. I know that I'm going to be inviting you back to join us on a few others in the future. But, I think that this is great information for folks to hear because there are a lot of communities that are at that point that they want to talk and want to work together.
Jody Horntvedt: I would say that if you wanted to wrap your head around this, there are actually a couple of books I would recommend for people, that I think could help you start thinking about the power of a conversation and the value of hosting a community conversation. And one of those I mentioned earlier was Peter Block's book Community: The Structure of Belonging, he talks about how do we create the social fabric of community through conversation. I think that's really powerful. And I'm assuming that you're going to list a couple of resources up from Everyday Democracy posting, so that'll be great. But the other book that I would recommend is a book called, Turning to One Another by Margaret Wheatley. And this is a book I've owned for many years, and she talks there about the heart of conversation as we turn to one another and one of the quotes that I have in my head always around conversations. I guess I would end with this thought or this quote by Margaret Wheatley. She says, “Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present and that takes practice, but we don't have to do anything else, but just listen to each other. We don't have to advise or coach or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.”
Christy Kallevig: Well, I think that that's a great place to end today. Thank you so much, Jody, for all of this great information in that lovely quote to end it. I hope that you'll come back and get in the future.
Jody Horntvedt: I hope so too. So thanks, Christy. It's always great to have a conversation with you.
Christy Kallevig: Thank you to Jody for joining me today to help us think about conversations in our own communities. Make sure to visit our website, www.extension.umn.edu/community-development where you will find our podcast page and all the great resources that Jody shared. You will also find our model for civic engagement and other great information and resources from the Center for Community Vitality. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on new research and resources for communities and those who lead them. I hope that you'll join me again for another episode of Vital Connections On Air.
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