Community or public engagement is an essential part of most successful planning projects or decision-making initiatives. When it comes to hot topics that are polarizing, leading community engagement can be especially challenging. Here are some best practices that can help you have better, more productive, and respectful conversations. 

Establish clear ground rules for engagement.

This includes setting expectations for respectful behaviour and communication, as well as outlining the goals and objectives of the engagement process. It is ideal to have all participants understand and agree to these ground rules from the outset. 

Focus on common ground and shared values.

While there may be disagreements about and trade-offs within and between specific issues, there are often underlying values and goals that everyone can agree on. By identifying and highlighting these commonalities with and for participants, you can help build a foundation for productive dialogue and collaboration. 

Approach conversations with empathy and an open mind.

This means trying to understand the other person’s perspective, even if it differs from your own. By demonstrating empathy and a willingness to listen, you can help build trust and foster a more productive dialogue. 

Use storytelling to reduce the gap related to polarizing issues.

Sharing personal experiences and stories helps to increase understanding and empathy. This helps to bring people closer together, which is especially important when it comes to polarizing issues.  

Engage all perspectives and opinions.

This means giving everyone an equal opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas, without interruption or judgment. It may also mean giving those with lived experience related to a hot topic more support to engage and be heard, including additional, targeted engagement opportunities. It is important to acknowledge and validate the experiences and emotions of all participants, even if you do not agree with their perspective. 

Be patient and persistent.

Community engagement is a process, not a one-time event. It takes time to build trust, establish relationships, and work through complex issues. By being patient and persistent in your efforts, you can help facilitate meaningful conversations and progress on polarizing topics. 


We are experts in designing and facilitating conversations about hot topics. Ask us how we can help your community address the issues, challenges and trade-offs that lie ahead. Contact Shannon[at]