Getting format forward

Few things excite me more than finding a new way to have an old conversation. A new approach, format or activity to erase the predictability of a well-worn exchange. When it comes to facilitation, I am forever seeking the shift-awkwardly-in-your-chair-wonder-if-it’s-too-soon-for-a-bathroom-break level of new.

The Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH) team knows this well. Who could forget the AGM where we sat knee-to-knee in triads, giving each person a full 90 seconds to speak without any reaction from the others? Or the staff meeting where we used enneagram styles to practice giving difficult feedback? (Thank you Jessica Uys for patiently guiding us through that one). 

Then there was our large-scale deliberative democracy exercise that brought a representative sample of 400 Canadians into a room for many hours to discuss foreign policy. In the end, 73% of those people left the rooms more open to opposing ideas and the people who held them. 

I seek this kind of novelty because I’ve seen how effective it can be. I’ve seen how walls come down, minds open up and fresh ideas creep in, all because people were forced to leave their stump speeches at the door and truly engage

I’ve also seen what happens when things go starkly in the other direction. As an Albertan, I’m no stranger to heated debate, and I’ve learned to spot a conversation that’s headed for the great plains of nowhere before it’s even begun. 

We often blame these failures on people, rather than process. Though the process can’t correct for people who are genuine ‘saboteurs’, it can go a long way to get most humans past their biases and blind spots and open to new perspectives.  

In other words, the right format is critical on polarizing topics like climate, gender and health. And finding the right format starts with asking the right questions: How do we establish common ground from opposing sides of an issue? Where can we find radically new ideas and then get them to be even better through engagement? And then, it is about designing spaces that allow for listening (remember that good old skill?). All of this can help people see pathways from rhetoric to results. 

This isn’t about preserving civility, but protecting democracy. At every level, we need to be challenged to arrive at the best ideas. We need to get to better and echo chambers of good vibes and agreeability will not get us there. 

At CanWaCH, that philosophy was top of mind while planning this year’s flagship event. We wanted to set the stage for novel, meaningful conversations on some of the most pressing issues in our sector. The Healthy World Conference: Dialogues on Health, Gender & Climate Resilience is exactly that — dialogues. The format won’t have you shifting awkwardly in your chair, nervously eyeing the exit sign (we hope!), but it will have you engaged in the kind of thoughtful dialogue these topics deserve.

Our conference speakers and moderators aren’t there to talk at you, but with you. There will be space for all voices and perspectives as we discuss issues related to health, gender and climate, and explore the point where those worlds collide. These will not be the same conversations we’ve been having in silos for years. Rather, we want this to be an opportunity to think, listen, learn and share differently.

For me, the greatest marker of success won’t be the total number of registrations or high scores on the post-event survey, but the level of perspective shifting. If at the end of those two days in May, attendees leave Montreal with a few different actionable ideas than the ones they brought with them, the conference will be a success in my book.


April 30, 2024


CanWaCH CEO Julia Anderson