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Section 17. Leading a Community Dialogue on Building a Healthy Community

Tool 1: Helpful Guidelines for the Dialogue Facilitator

Establish ground rules for the group.

Your conversation will proceed more smoothly if you and the participants agree on clear ground rules.

  • Listen respectfully
  • One person talks at a time
  • Be tough on ideas, not on people -- no personal attacks
  • Everyone has an opportunity to speak
  • Making the dialogue successful is the responsibility of all participants

Make sure the dialogue is relaxed.

Ensure that all feel comfortable giving their opinions.

You do not have to be an expert.

Don't feel as though you must be an expert on any of the issues. Before the dialogue, read the various materials that have been provided. Stay neutral and ask the group if you're stuck.

Be flexible in your questioning.

Each of the questions offered in Tool 2: The Dialogue Questions has been tested. However, you may want to make some adjustments based on your objectives. Be cautious not to bias responses by asking questions that lead the participants to a socially acceptable answer. Also, questions that may be answered with a "yes" or "no" response tend to stifle conversation.

Monitor the group process.

Pay attention to who has already spoken, whether everyone has spoken, and whether a few people are dominating the conversation. You will want to refresh your skills on effective facilitation in advance. There are plenty of resources to support the facilitator.

Foster dialogue.

When conversations start to drift, summarize the relevant points already mentioned and ask for other ideas. Help participants find common ground by asking them about advantages and disadvantages of different points of view. Draw out quiet people. Build off of other comments.

Ask participants applicable key questions.

Sometimes you may need to prod the participants to get their complete opinion or to clarify a point. You may also need to inspire dialogue about a point that the group believes merits additional discussion, sometimes finding a measure of common ground in diverging viewpoints. Don't worry about achieving consensus. Some useful questions for fostering dialogue are:

  • What is the key point or idea?
  • Does anyone wish to support or challenge this point?
  • What is it about that opinion that you just cannot live with?
  • Can you give an example to illustrate the point?
  • Are there points on which most of us agree?

Allow time for closing dialogue and any follow-up steps.

Be sure to leave some time at the end of the dialogue for closing thoughts and summaries.

  • Ask participants to share last comments and encourage them to keep the dialogue going after they return home, engaging others in discussions about their community.
  • Thank everyone for participating.

Tool 2: The Dialogue Questions

These seven questions may for the backbone of your dialogue. This ensures that the perspectives of your group can be included in the process. Sub-questions are offered as prompts to assist you in deepening the dialogue. You should decide which questions to spend more time on. It is not necessary to get consensus, but do seek focus.

What do you believe are the 2-3 most important characteristics of a healthy community?

When you picture a healthy community, what stands out?

What makes you most proud of our community?

What are some specific examples of people or groups working together to improve the health and quality of life of our community?

(Listen for and record compelling statements and stories.)

  • How did these come about? Who was involved? How did they access needed resources? What was accomplished?
  • How do you think some of these efforts could be expanded?
  • What are the most important lessons you have learned from both successful and unsuccessful community efforts?

What do you believe are the 2-3 most important issues that must be addressed to improve the health and quality of life in our community?

  • If you could improve one thing in your community right now, what would it be?
  • What are the 2-3 most important challenges we will face in the next 5-10 years?

What do you believe is keeping our community from doing what needs to be done to improve health and quality of life?

  • What do you believe are the underlying causes or reasons for these barriers?
  • What is our community currently doing to address these issues?
  • What makes leadership difficult on these issues?

What action, policy, or funding priorities would you support to build a healthier community?

  • Would you support the priorities if they meant an increase in taxes? (At what level -- federal, state, local?)
  • What changes in how our community spends its time and resources would make our community better (at work, school, worship, recreation, in civic life?)
  • What is the responsibility of community members in building a healthy community?

What would excite you enough to become involved (or more involved) in improving our community?

  • What is the best way to engage other community members?
  • What is the best way to get youth, parents, organizations, businesses, the faith community, schools, and media involved?
  • How can we best build upon the assets and strengths of our community?
  • How could learning from this conversation apply to your current activities?
  • Are there any obvious next steps?

Tool 3: Healthy Community Principles

Communities across the nation are using a variety of change models and planning processes to work together to achieve their visions of improved health. Regardless of the approaches taken to meet their challenges, the following principles are guiding the most successful initiatives.

A broad definition of "health"

Health is not the absence of disease. Health is defined broadly to include the full range of quality-of-life issues. It recognizes that most of what creates health is lifestyle- and behavior-related. Other major factors are genetic endowment and the socio-economic, cultural, and physical environments. Health is a by-product of a wide array of choices and factors -- not simply the result of a medical care intervention.

A broad definition of "community"

By using as broad a definition as possible of what makes up a community, individuals and partnerships can address their shared issues in the most fruitful way possible. Communities can be based on faith, perspective, land, and profession, as well as being determined by geographic lines.

Address quality of life for everyone

Healthy communities strive to ensure that the basic emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of everyone in the community are attended to.

Diverse citizen participation and widespread community ownership

In healthy communities, all people take active and ongoing responsibility for themselves, their families, their property, and their community. A leader's work is to find common ground among participants so that everyone is empowered to take direct action for health and influence community directions.

Focus on "systems change"

This is about changing the way people live and work together. It is about how community services are delivered, how information is shared, how local government operates, and how business is conducted. It is about resource allocation and decision making, not just "nice" projects.

Build capacity using local assets and resources

This means starting from existing community strengths and successes and then investing in the enhancement of a community's "civic infrastructure." By developing an infrastructure that encourages health, fewer resources will need to be spent on "back end" services that attempt to fix the problems resulting from a weak infrastructure.

Benchmark and measure progress and outcomes

Healthy communities use performance measures and community indicators to help expand the flow of information and accountability to all citizens, as well as to reveal whether residents are heading toward or away from their stated goals. Time, accurate, information is vital to sustaining long-term community improvement.

Tim Brownlee