Continuum of Engagement – Ask Who Does It Primarily Serve?

This Sunday January 18th at beautiful Rivendell Retreat on Bowen Island, BC, my colleague Brenda Chaddock and I are co-presenting Facilitating Wise Action: Engaging Groups in Meaningful Conversations Around Complex Issues. The program is focused on conversational methods that foster mutual understanding, learning, partnership, and co-creation.

In past offerings (this is our third), participants have found the questions from our Engagement Process and Continuum to be enlightening, especially those related to purpose, convener, participants, and methods. We suggest that the continuum of engagement can be distinguished according to two broad types: unilateral/bilateral, and multilateral. The purpose for unilateral and bilateral forms of engagement primarily serves the convener. In multilateral engagement, all participants are equally served by the purpose, including the convener. Viewing the purpose of engagement through this lens sheds some helpful light on the role of the convener, on who should be invited, and on what are the best methods for the engagement. For those interested in learning more, please download a PDF extract of the Engagement Process: Continuum of Engagement which is part of our Facilitating Wise Action curriculum. A summary follows of the above categories:


Type: Unilateral & Bilateral (Serves Convener)

  • One Way Communication: We Tell You Our Story (inform, educate)
  • Hearings & Research: We Invite Your Input (listen, gather data, input)
  • Two-Way Consultation: We Listen to Various Sides (discuss, obtain feedback; hear sides & stories)

Type: Multilateral (Serves all participants)

  • Mutual Understanding: Together, We Learn/Reframe Conflict (learn together about common issue; transform conflict)
  • Partnership & Co-Creation: Together, We Decide & Collaborate (generate solutions; collaborate; partner; co-create)

Stakeholder Engagement Methods & Purpose

Stakeholder engagement is a new competency area that many organizations are realizing they need to acquire in today’s connected, aware, and sophisticated world of networks and relationships.

  • Yesterday I had a long conversation with a program manager in an oil and gas company who is trained as an engineer, yet is routined called upon to mediate and facilitate multi-stakeholder meetings who have a multiplicity of interests and needs. He was exploring whether our upcoming program, Facilitating Wise Action: Engaging Groups in Meaningful Conversations Around Complex Issues, might provide him with useful tools. He asked me, “How do you turn these meetings where everyone is focused on their own WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) into a more productive conversation where we can also talk about what we have in common. For example, sometimes we should be asking, what are we all going to do together to leave something behind in situations where we all realize we can’t continue to do what we’ve all been doing? How do we get business, government and NGO’s to be willing to innovate, risk and do something different together?”
  • Two weeks ago, I spent a morning with some 40 members of a parks consultation community of practice interested in learning how Appreciative Inquiry might be an appropriate engagement method for their various stakeholder meetings.
  • A few months ago, a colleague in a large resource company commented to me that the time their senior Executive Team devotes to stakeholder issues now often overshadows all other priorities, which is in stark contrast to the way things were a few years ago. He attributed this to the much smaller world we live in, the rise of stakeholder awareness, sophistication and activism, and the increasing expectation by people generally to be consulted and involved on issues that affect them, not only by their governments, but also by businesses and social profit agencies. We were exploring how their company might develop a more effective strategy for building long-term, trust-based stakeholder relationships.

In all of these cases, a key part of my message has been the importance of knowing one’s broad purpose for engaging stakeholders, and then adopting the appropriate method to support it. As illustrated in the above table, if the starting purpose is to provide information, tell your story, obtain input and undertake some type of market research (all one-way or to some extent transactional forms of engagement), then certain methods are appropriate. If the reason for engaging is to build awareness and trust, learn together, build common ground, resolve conflict, collaborate and work together over time, then other methods will be more effective.