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Chawirakan Nomai/WLE

A Convener’s Outrespective

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

Outrespection: A method through which one gets to know oneself by developing relationships and empathetic thinking with others.

The Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy serves as the primary interface between the technical work produced by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems in the Greater Mekong and potential users of that work. It is carefully facilitated, to emphasize deliberation, and managed to ensure that new solutions and ideas are presented in ways understandable to a non-technical audience.

Mekong Forum
WLE project teams discuss at the Mekong Forum
Chawirakan Nomai/WLE

We convened our fourth forum on October 21-23, 2015, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

All talk, no dialogue

We held our first forum under the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) in 2011. It attracted 160 participants, but numbers are not an indicator of quality. I’ve found coffee breaks to be one of the best occasions to gauge quality, and I wandered through these, pausing to eavesdrop on conversations between participants. 

In 2011, people spoke primarily about their work and their projects. They also complained about the coffee. For a forum to be successful, session conversations need to spill out into the coffee spaces, digress to consider other stuff, and then return to the forum and what session participants are attending next. I wasn’t hearing enough of this to reassure me that we were on the right track.

In addition, our researchers presented as scientists at a conference. Slide after slide contained copious detail, serving as script for the nervous presenters. Our government, NGO and international organization participants turned to their mobile phones and laptops, uncomprehending and dulled by too much technical jargon. Lacking the chance to carefully consider the new knowledge presented, in discussion, through opportunities to query, through debate, participants were cut off from considering or adopting new ideas.

It was a good event - I think we can be proud of it as our very first one - but a key part of our mission was unaccomplished.

Oh, and that the coffee needed to be better.

Introspection led to focus on deliberation

In Hanoi the following year, we had more to report upon. Attendance climbed to 193 participants, almost half of whom were not researchers. The Xayaburi Dam was also a very hot topic. 

Because results were emerging from our projects, and because of the Xayaburi Dam hype, I felt confident that, irrespective of the technical excesses of our researchers, participants would find something to latch on to, something that compelled them to rich discussion at the coffee breaks. But once again, I wasn’t hearing it. 

In the days and months following the 2012 event, we reflected deeply. Outrespection was becoming introspection.

2013 rolled in, and we were back in Hanoi. This time, we had considerably greater resources to build the forum around. The CPWF was coming to an end, and our projects had many results to share. Perhaps most importantly, we began to impose session designs upon the project teams: fewer and shorter presentations with less text and more story telling. 

By the time it was over, we had received 237 participants representing 92 different agencies. The discussions had been generally extremely rich. The session leads had worked hard to limit their presentations, and conversations during the coffee breaks hummed with anecdotes from previous sessions. 

With our community of practice seemingly on board with our deliberation focus, we turned to thinking about the management of that focus - its facilitation.

Facilitation paves the way

Facilitation is a remarkably under-rated activity. A good facilitator is a moderator, a referee, an entertainer, a synthesizer, a listener. Not everyone is a born facilitator – me least of all.

Yet, we came down quite hard on our session leads this year: Only three presentations per session, no more than five slides per presentation, and little or no text. The researchers grumbled, but we were used to that.

To prepare our session leads, we set them up with an American facilitator by the name of Fisher Qua, whose technique is built on story telling and urges retrospect, contemplation and anecdote. Fisher worked with each and every one of them to construct their session plans. 

We think the 306 people who attended this year were generally happy with the forum: in response to the question on its overall quality in the closing survey, we got an average score of 4.3 out of 5 – but that still leaves 0.7 points of improvement we can still make.

The quality of session designs and facilitation made a quantum leap, as confirmed by participants who rated facilitation 4.4 out of 5.

Still, there were some things I didn’t really like: that most of the chairs in the main ballroom were maintained in the plenary lay out; the Knowledge Lounge, which was too long and too dark; some sessions could have been a little more effervescent while otherwere perhaps too effervescent.

But there were many things I did like: the sense that the entire dialogue on water, food and energy had shunted forwards, how frequently I heard people laughing, and how noisy the coffee breaks were. Perhaps best of all was the overall sense that something was happening.

And what surprised me? Nobody commented on how good the coffee was.

For additional information and resources, visit The Mekong Forum website