To engage your stakeholders, you must first ignite their imaginations, which will increase their participation, which will foster their commitment to your shared work and the desired results.
These three pillars of engagement are broad, so to help ground these concepts in practice, I am excited to share with you the following list of ways to ignite your stakeholders’ imaginations and get you moving down the road to meaningful engagement.
All of the below practices are based in cognitive-neurology, the field of study which looks at biological processes and aspects that underlie cognition, with a specific focus on the neural connections in the brain which are involved in mental processes. What that means in english is the below processes are scientifically proven to help humans think different and activate parts of our right-brain that often are dormant. The below processes are scientifically proven to get your stakeholders engaged and thinking creatively about the challenges you face, goals you work towards and connections you desire to develop.
1. Future-based Inquiry. Ask your stakeholders open-ended questions that force them to use their imagination to answer. This puts the respondent in the place of thinking BIG and engaging their hearts as they tap into their passions and hopes for your shared work. Below are some examples:
Imagine it is a year from now, what did we do last year that enabled us to collaborate across historic divides?
Imagine it is a month from now, what happened during the last 30-days that made it possible for you to meaningfully contribute to our work?
2. Leverage Metaphors. Metaphors are communication symbols that connects head and heart. Metaphors are foundational to the way we think and make sense of our lives. We speak in metaphors so naturally that is often invisible to us, “It was a Hail Mary”; “The grass is always greener…” Metaphor functions as a bridge between logic and emotion, imagination and experience. Metaphors bypass the thinking mind and activate the right brain. When you work with metaphor, you connect people with a deeper part of themselves.
When working with metaphors, some of your participants might have an initial resistance or struggle to come up with a metaphor. The follow guidelines will help anyone, engage in a metaphor priming activity:
- Keep it short and simple
- Look to the natural world for ideas
- Close your eyes, focus on what you want to create a metaphor for, and see what images present themself. (For some reason, a jack-in-the-box toy always comes to mind when I envision creativity. Initially I did not understand why, and the more I thought about the connection between a jack-in-the-box toy and creativity, the more the image makes sense...to me.
These are two questions I like to ask groups to help them leverage their metaphoric thinking:
How is this issue/challenge/group like ______ (air, traffic, chocolate, soap, etc.)?
If our team was a _____ (car, tree, mascot, candybar, etc.) what type of ______ (car, tree, mascot, candybar, etc.) would it be? Why?
When we think about our work in symbols, we are able to gain new perspectives and develop new thinking and solutions.
3. Get Rhythm. Our bodies are based on rhythm. The beat of our hearts, women's monthly cycles, the cycles of life and death. Ever notice folks dancing/singing/rowing together and they seem bonded as one? At these and other moments of joint rhythmic engagement they discover a connection with each other regardless whether there has been a relationship. Rhythmicity is the glue for establishing human connections.
Have your stakeholders move their bodies when you are trying to engage them - have them pantomime their thoughts, make a facial expression to introduce themselves, lead a yoga pose during breaks, etc.
Play music any and every chance you get - as attendees arrive, during breaks/break-outs, when the convening ends, and any time you it is appropriate in your workplace/setting. Music ignites emotion and sense memory.
4. Tell Stories. Humans are far more likely to remember information if introduced to it through story rather than bullet points or data. Data stimulates just a small part of the brain that processes language, story activates widespread areas. Tell your story, express your passion, let emotions through and encourage others to share their stories around the issue. Inviting authentic emotion and connection into the room will help you catalyze action and increase commitment.
Telling and listening to stories can help your stakeholders reconnect to their passions and get them out of the day-to-day details that can sap engagement. Have your stakeholders share their stories (short stories) with each other at fundraisers, highlight them on social media, and make space at your meetings for your stakeholders to share why they are passionate about your shared work with prompts such as:
What is a life experience that highlights why you care about this issue?
What do you believe is possible through this work?
Encouraging stories to be shared can provide an energy boost, reconnect your stakeholders to their passion, create a fun pause in a meeting, and more, all the while igniting your stakeholders’ imaginations, encouraging participation and fostering their commitment.
5. Encourage Creativity with creative materials. Providing creative tools for stakeholders to play with helps them think, create and express themselves non-verbally. This is especially impactful when working with technical thinkers (e.g. programmers and engineers).
Putting ink to paper has a wide range of benefits, from deepening a group conversation to helping people explore their values and concerns, their thoughts and their feelings. You can have participants decorate their name tags, simply leave blank paper and crayons/markers on tables and see what happens, or direct participants to use the materials.
Provide fidget toys (i.e. PlayDoh, pipe cleaners) for your stakeholders to play with. Having tangible objects to move with when thinking engages both sides of our brain, thus igniting creativity.
Each stakeholder is a little different, and each industry has it’s nuances. I encourage you to apply the above to your environment. Push yourself past your comfort zone and try something new, different, bold. Some of these processes might seem silly, or childish, yet they are effective and they will engage participants minds, bodies and hearts.
If you have any questions or want a thought partner to explore how these techniques might work in your situation, please feel free to contact me for a free consultation, firstname.lastname@example.org.