What I learnt from commencing and closing communities


September 29, 2018

The communications’ discipline should put more emphasis on its original foundation: conversations and communities. In our daily lives of multitasking and struggling to get people’s attention, conversations require people to be present and to contribute. People contribute to a conversation by asking good questions, actively listening and sharing. This helps everybody around the table learn and understand different points of views and challenge our current thinking. Getting out of our digital echo chambers, being seen, heard and recognized, not for the likes and comments on social media, but for who we are and how we contribute, creates belonging.

“Loneliness is a serious public-health problem” wrote the Economist in the beginning of September, calling loneliness an epidemic. We need to belong and then we perform. Conversations are a simple, inexpensive, yet a powerful way to gather people and help them grow. Over the years I have co-founded various communities, from the Campfires, Minds of Oslo, Circles, Council and Sustainability Hub, all with the common aim of gathering caring, kind and curious people to have inspiring, difficult and meaningful conversations face-to-face. Minds of Oslo gathers people over a long informal dinner with no agenda to spark serendipitous conversations, whereas Circles and Council have a required pre-read, maximum eight people and conversations under Chatham House. All have helped me grow and feel like I belong.

Passionate about conversations, I put together a pamphlet, Conversations in Norway, and a website for others to replicate the conversation models.

In the process of commencing and closing communities, here is what I have learnt.

  1. Building communities – like trust – takes time. Face-to face-communities, contrary to online communities, should be built with effect, rather than the number of the people reached in mind. Start by inviting a few people and encourage them to invite those who they see fit to contribute to the conversation. When welcoming new members, share the expected etiquette of the community: What you can expect, how the community communicates and any concerns. Grow gradually. If you want to build trust it takes time.
  2. Ignite conversations regularly to provide value to the members. Beyond the face-to-face conversations, share content regularly with the community, through for example a Facebook group or newsletter. To reach those frequently online and offline, communities need both email newsletters and social media channels. Remember, social media should supplement not supplant the face-to-face conversations. In my experience, the content that generates the most interest and conversations is content about the community such as a warm welcome to new members, achievements, articles about or by the members. See what unites the people. For Minds of Oslo, it has been Oslo as a city, recommended articles and books, and deep questions. Over time, I have encouraged members to share content themselves on the group and now Minds of Oslo members drive the conversations.
  3. It is not mine to make, it is ours to create. Althoughmost communities are united by a founder, they exist because of its members.To maintain focus on its members and create ownership, rotate who hosts the conversations.
  4. Monitor the community.  The data of who joins, how the community is growing and attendance at events, will indicate, but should not define, whether the community is successful. Last year I conducted a survey of Minds of Oslo to understand what should be improved, and it was clear that we needed to change the venue, which was becoming too crowded and noisy.
  5. Come and go. Just like a community is needed, sometimes it is no longer needed. Communities flourish when they meet a need. Some members will join, be very active and then leave the community. That is a sign of success as they have found their place somewhere else and have “moved on” from the community. And sometimes the community no longer serves the need it was founded on. That does not remove its value in the past, but it may be time to close the community and start something new.

For more information about why we need conversations, how to host them and what we need to talk about, or to share your experiences with commencing and closing communities, drop me a note.