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A different approach to engagement

The Scottish Recovery Network team reflect on the recovery conversation café approach and the benefits of stepping out of your comfort zone to make engagement meaningful.

As an organisation we are interested in bringing people together on an equal basis. Ways of engaging that enable people to share experiences and ideas that bring about positive change. Through our work we have used many different methods including conversation café and world café techniques. We have delivered a wide range of collaborative projects that put the voice of lived experience front and centre.

An alternative to traditional engagement

Over time we have developed the recovery conversation café approach. A recovery conversation café is an alternative to traditional formal engagement processes. It engages people meaningfully in discussions to find out what is important to them. Using the approach organisations and services are providing the opportunity for people to participate in:

  • The design, delivery and evaluation of mental health support
  • Influencing local and national mental health and wellbeing strategies
  • Events that bring people together to connect and share ideas on mental health and wellbeing

Recovery conversation cafés have been a journey of discovery for us and the people we work with. There has been plenty of learning along the way. We want to share this learning with you. This feature and the Run your own Conversation Café toolkit have been developed to do just that.

Step out of your comfort zone

There is the assumption that engagement approaches must be formal to be successful. Traditional engagement processes are often tightly controlled in order to generate the required results for the initiating organisation. We have found quite the opposite. Formal approaches hamper creative thinking and sharing. A recovery conversation café promotes, nurtures and celebrates it.

When you invite people to contribute their ideas the whole focus should be finding out what is important to them.

In our experience top tables and presentations from ‘experts’ at engagement events are a barrier to meaningful participation. We have experienced the unease felt when suggesting this but it is important to balance the power in the room. At a recovery conversation café everyone is an equal and active participant. It is not about setting out what you think is important. It is about learning what is important to the people who have taken the time to take part.

This brings to mind a time when we were working with a partnership. They wanted to engage people with lived experience and the wider community in developing their programme. Our suggestion of a recovery conversation café approach raised concerns. Organisers felt that the process wouldn’t provide the information needed. They felt the context had to be set and specific questions asked and responded to. We encouraged the planning team to step out of their comfort zone and try a different approach.

Lesley Smith, Network Officer, Scottish Recovery Network

The result? There was tangible positive energy in the room, the conversations flowed and agreements were reached on key themes. The organisers were impressed. They had rich information to draw on and had engaged with a wider group of people than usual.

We all wear many hats

Recovery conversation cafés are a really good way to bring a range of voices together. They make sure everyone is involved. It’s not just people with lived experience of mental health problems that can contribute. Front-line practitioners and others appreciate the opportunity to share their experiences and perspectives. To have their voices heard. We all wear many hats and a recovery conversation café provides a space where all ideas are welcome and valued.

Sometimes partners feel that they need to engage with workers and people with lived experience separately. However this adds to that feeling of ‘them and us’ and can be limiting. When you bring different people together the conversation is rich and diverse. There are different perspectives and ideas that can be shared and built upon. We have found that the approach helps to break down the ‘them and us’ barriers. Cafés provide an environment where different people can have different conversations that bring new solutions which may not have emerged or been considered before.

The online events we hosted during the Covid-19 restrictions highlighted how valuable talking about our own wellbeing was, made us more relatable to each other’s challenges. Surprisingly, once people shed their labels (whether practitioner, person with lived experience or someone accessing services), discussions flowed easily as people listened, responded and built on their ideas.

Louise Christie, Director, Scottish Recovery Network

Designed informality

The way a recovery conversation café is planned and delivered helps to create a space that feels mutual and inclusive. The focus is on bringing people together to have great conversations. There are little ways to support this – refreshments and a welcoming environment, first name badges only, work lanyards removed. The focus on wellbeing connecting exercises is a great leveller. They support people to gel. They gently encourage people to contribute as themselves. The exercises once again challenge the ‘them and us’ culture within service provider relationships. But it is not just the atmosphere and conversations that are great. What is special is that this informal, open conversation produces feedback which is very powerful and can result in positive change to strategy and services.

…designed informality helps to create a welcoming and engaging approach to conversations to enable people to share their experiences and views and identify what is important to them.

Making Recovery Real in Dundee Review

Run your own Recovery Conversation Café

Positive feedback about the approach has come from across Scotland – Dundee, Moray, Glasgow, Fife, West Dunbartonshire, Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute to name a few. The Mental Health Network Greater Glasgow worked in partnership with the Scottish Recovery Network. Together we delivered a series of recovery conversation cafés. The aim was to identify what helps their members with their mental health recovery.

The recovery conversation café approach gives people an opportunity to come together, share with and learn from other people with similar experiences. This approach supports people to maintain their wellbeing and take control of their recovery whilst generating invaluable insights and intelligence about what we can do to better support recovery.

Ann Jones, Manager, Mental Health Network Greater Glasgow

The learning from cafés is being fed directly into local mental health and wellbeing strategy and service planning. The approach is enabling people with lived experience to not only inform the agenda but also to get involved in how strategic priorities are implemented.  

Get involved

As you can tell we love the atmosphere and experience of a recovery conversation café and the positive changes they can make in people’s lives and communities. As we eagerly anticipate organisations and services being able to get people together in a physical space again as well as providing online opportunities we encourage you to order or download your toolkit.

You can order hard copy versions for free (Scotland only) from 0300 323 9956 | or download from this website in our Resources section.

British Sign Language (BSL) users can contact us directly by using contactSCOTLAND-BSL