Reflections on using conversations in a course on community engagement

FSF 2012-34 smallIn the undergraduate online community engagement elective I teach, I introduce students to strengths-based approaches (e.g., asset-based community-driven development and appreciative inquiry). To encourage them to think about the difference between deficit-based questions and strengths-based questions, I ask students to have a conversation with two people. I ask them to ask one person about:

  1. What they think is wrong with their community?
  2. What are the major needs of their community?
  3. What could be done to address these needs?

I ask them to ask the other person about:

  1. What they think are the strengths of their community?
  2. A time they felt their community was at its best?
  3. What they value most about their community?
  4. How they think they could help improve their community?

While I like this as an exercise it doesn’t really help them see the difference between the two approaches. They only speak to two people so there are many other variables in play, and so some students find that the deficit-based questions work better. Most students end thinking that it would be best to combine both sets of questions.

If this was a face-to-face class (and all students attended the classes), we could explore this much further but the online nature of the class makes this difficult. Despite it having limitations in demonstrating the advantages of a strengths-based approach, I think it still highlights four useful principles.

The questions we ask can have a big influence on the responses we receive. This means that we need to think very carefully about the types of questions we ask.

Most of the students realise that the questions had a large influence on how people responded. Of course people’s personalities, experience of their community, mood, etc., also had a major influence, but the questions we ask are very important (as is demonstrated in the following short clip from “Yes Prime Minster”).

As Kral (1989) suggests

If we ask people to look for deficits, they will usually find them, and their view of situations will be coloured by this. If we ask people to look for successes, they will usually find them, and their view of situations will be coloured by this.

We can create very different pictures of the same community depending on whether we focus on the deficits or the strengths. (See for example A story of two communities).

Community engagement aims to address issues affecting the well-being of communities (Department of Sustainability and Environment, 2005). This means that we need to do more than just identify the strengths of communities.

Clearly it is not helpful to only consider the strengths of communities and to ignore the challenges and problems in a community. Strengths-based approaches to working with communities do not look at them through rose-coloured glasses. We work with communities in order to help improve them and so we need to discover what needs to change.

In a strengths-based approach our focus may be on the strengths and resources of a community, but we don’t ignore problems.

Many of the students comment on the value of combining both sets of questions. To be honest, I would be very unlikely to use the first set of questions, even though I agree it is important to explore how communities can be improved and the issues faced by community members. One of the problems with the first set of questions is that they can encourage people to look for somebody else to blame. Quite often the problems are seen as the fault of the government, the economy, (other) parents etc.

As one students commented:

The person I interviewed with the negatively geared questions very much took the position that the local and state government were the reasons that the community was not having its needs met. He identified a lack of community activities for young people being a significant issue, as he lives in a semi- rural area where the majority of residents have a low socioeconomic status. He felt that the lack of government support in creating programs has led to the high crime rates which have negatively affected his community. He also felt disillusioned about participating in the improvement of his community as when his family had petitioned in the past for increased bus services (it is currently impossible to get to the local TAFE using public transport) and no one took their concerns seriously.

The second set of questions tend to encourage people to think about how they can help improve things. Of course this isn’t always the case, but there is a tendency for this to happen.

As the students point out, the advantage with the first set of questions is that they helped identify the needs of the community and what could be improved, and some people were passionately engaged in the discussion. I think we can ask questions about what needs to change in the community in a more positive, future oriented way. By looking forward rather than backwards, we are more likely to promote change and growth. To explore some of the challenges faced by a community, but in a more positive way, we might ask questions like:

  1. What are some of the challenges facing your community and how does the community respond? (Notice the word “challenges” which suggests things can be overcome and that people are encouraged to think about how the community can respond.)
  2. Imagine it is 10 years in the future and your community has just won an award for being the best community in Australia. What would be different? (This essentially explores what is wrong with the community, but does it in a way that encourages a focus on how things can be improved rather than stopping at what is wrong.)
  3. If you could improve one thing about your community, what would it be? (Again the focus is on how things can improve rather than what is wrong.)

Another question I like in World Café’s (which involve more discussion and interaction) is “What time is it for Newcastle?” (or wherever). This question does allow people to explore what needs to change, but it also invites positive responses.

I really like the acronym HOPE which is sometimes used in strengths-based approaches: Helping Other Possibilities Emerge. If we just focus on what is wrong with a community, there is a risk that people will feel powerless to create change. We want to make sure that we ask questions in ways that help other possibilities emerge.

Communities are not homogeneous, and different people can have very different experiences of the same community. This means that we need to ensure that we obtain a range of perspectives and think about whose voices are missing.

Sometimes the different responses to questions were largely due to the types of questions asked, but at other times people had quite different experiences of the same community and/or their personalities had a large influence on the responses received. Some people are naturally positive and even when asked about what was wrong with the community they quickly started talking about what they liked about their community. Other people tend to be more negative and even when asked about the strengths of their communities quickly moved on to what was wrong with it.

Sometimes students spoke to two people from the same community and received quite different impressions. Sometimes this could have been due to the questions asked, but at times it was because the people had very different experiences of the same community. As one students suggested:

I noticed that even though the two people came from the same suburb they had encountered very different experiences within the community.

It is thus important when working with communities that we hear from a range of perspectives and experiences. I believe that community engagement should be a principled approach, and so believe it is important to think about whose interests are being served in our work, and argue we have an ethical responsibility to protect the interests of marginalised sections of the community and to consider whose voices are being missed in our conversations. We need to actively seek input from a range of perspectives, particularly marginalised ones.

Our assumptions about people and communities can easily be mistaken. This means that we need to check out our perceptions, be careful of making assumptions, and not make sweeping statements.

At times students were surprised by the responses they received or how people reacted to the questions. Other students made quite broad generalisations or sweeping statements based on their two conversations. For example a student who interviewed a young person and an older person suggested that the interview showed that young people are less connected to the community than older people.

It is important that we keep an open mind, that we don’t rush to conclusions and that we don’t make generalisations based on limited evidence.


I think the students gain a great deal from having conversations with people about their communities and will continue to ask them to do it. I think it is time, however, to change the questions and to use it to explore the strengths of communities and the different experiences of people within their community rather than hoping it will demonstrate the advantages of strengths-based approaches.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1.  What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  2. What is Appreciative Inquiry?
  3. A story of two communities
  4. A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description
  5. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement


Department of Sustainability and Environment. (2005). Effective Engagement: building relationships with community and other stakeholders. Book 1: An introduction to engagement. East Melbourne: Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment.

Kral, R. (1989). Strategies that work: Techniques for solutions in the schools. Milwaukee, WI: Brieg Family Therapy Center.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Facilitation & teaching, Strengths-based approaches & ABCD, Working with communities and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reflections on using conversations in a course on community engagement

  1. Liz says:

    The minute you start asking what is wrong with a community you shift people into a problem solving mode and you can’t problem solve your way into the future – you need to create your way into the future. therefore, appreciative questions moves them into the creative zone. ONe question I like to use is “what would you like more of?” This identifies in an appreciative mode what is actually missing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. carolahand says:

    This is an important assignment, Graeme. Working from a strength-based approach is so much more liberatory in the long run. The challenges I found when using this approach in tribal communities were similar to those some of your students experienced. Even when I asked community members to describe the best they could imagine for their community in five or ten years, they began with lists of problems. Rather than correct them, I listened. I realized that for each problem they mentioned, I could see strengths in the community that were already in place that could be used to address the problems they listed. I was able to reframe the lists of problems into a series of questions that helped them realize how many strengths the community had, allowing them to envision the real possibility of a more hopeful future for the community and realistic ways they could begin working toward that goal. I learned that it’s extremely difficult for communities that have the target of centuries of colonial oppression. They’ve been systematically programmed over the course of generations to believe that they are the problem and only outside experts can help them (Linda Tuhiwai Smith, 2001, Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples). I’ve encountered similar difficulties with other oppressed communities. I’m not sure if this is helpful, but I’m mentioning just in case…

    Liked by 1 person

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