Idea of the Month: contact before content

| Anna Eaton

I was reminded of this simple idea when looking through some old training notes on restorative practice and asset based community development. Contact before content is a theme of asset based community development and one I think should be remembered and reflected on when starting out on any project, programme or initiative and should be taking place all the time, outside of these too!

But what does this catchy phrase mean? The way I interpret it is that there are lots of great ideas out there for projects that people want to start, questions they want to ask, agendas that are set – there is “content” but the “contact” gets forgotten or weaved into the content and the content is set before contact!

For example, I was recently taking part in a community of practice and one member said they didn’t want to go to another meeting that went like this: presentation from a select few, short time for questions and answers, meeting ends. He said that the best parts of those meetings were the short conversations that happened before or afterwards, standing outside the venue when attendees were milling around and started conversations with each other.

He wanted meetings where you could connect and talk to the different people in the room, where there was time and space and ways for attendees to find out about each other when they were brought together for such meetings around a common interest. This is the “contact”. The relationship building that is key to success.  But often it gets sidelined because an agenda has been set for the meeting already and people have specific things they want to get out of it in just a few short hours and generally, this trumps allocating time for connecting.

Similarly, groups of people from different walks of life get brought together to “tackle” something, to engage and feed into an idea already set. They are rarely given time to connect and build up relationships – it is hoped this will happen along the way – alongside the “content” and sometimes it does. But if “contact” isn’t valued, isn’t given time, things easily fall apart.

Around the country I’ve come across many situations where people, generally working within the public sector, with the best intentions want to “co-produce” something with certain groups. But they have no relationship in place and what is to be “co-produced” has already been determined and there is a short timeframe already imposed. There is rarely time for building relationships before “co-production” must begin. This creates a really tough environment to make things happen in. May be if we think about co-production as “contact” rather than “content” we would value the time spent building relationships and listening. I strongly believe we will achieve more in the long run that way.

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