What is Civic Reflection

Civic reflection is a conversation model that uses a shared source (such as a poem, image or film excerpt) to help groups of people think and talk more deeply about their shared world and differing values and commitments. This is a long-standing and well-researched approach developed through the Center for Civic Reflection, which began at Valparaiso University and continues at Salisbury University.

Why Civic Reflection

There are several benefits to this specific conversation approach. Among them:

  • The structure invites the group to carefully examine the provided source before shifting to a discussion of how the ideas embedded in the source (e.g., community, inequality) relate to each person in the group, the group as a whole, and their work in the world.
  • There is no requirement that people read or prepare before participating in the activity. All start from the same place when the source is presented. Each group will have their own conversation, informed by their own experiences.
  • The conversation often generates questions that matter to more of the group. It is not about answers so much as exploration; a starting point to allow groups to set common understandings before trying to answer discrete questions.
  • The process creates a space in which people can share even challenging or developing understandings of the world. In civic reflections involving more than 2,500 Salisbury University students, over 90% reported feeling welcome to share in the conversation, listening carefully, and feeling that they were listened to carefully.

Facilitator’s Role

Civic reflection is a facilitated exercise. Trained facilitators act as guides, helping to keep the conversation moving. They aid the group by supporting explanations rather than moderating what is said. The facilitator’s role is to guide participants in a conversation rather than serve as the expert in the room.

Exploring different opinions about complicated ideas may be new for many participants, so it is important that the conditions surrounding the discussion put people at ease. Facilitators encourage people to use first names during the discussion (not title, department, or office). By so doing, facilitators help establish comfort for those who may otherwise feel challenged to share their ideas, as well as differentiate this experience from a typical academic or professional setting.

Facilitators also help distinguish between a civic reflection (where no one person is the “expert” or has a higher level of “expertise”) and what happens within the bounds of an academic course or other professional development program, in which experts might structure a specific type of learning and experience through formally assessed exercises.

Facilitators can also takes notes for the group, helping to draw out any areas of confusion or list action steps. In this way, civic reflection can be an integral part of strategic planning or change efforts.

Timing and Using the Guide

Civic reflection relies on careful preparation, often using one of the guides developed at the Center for Civic Reflection.

But in a civic reflection, the conversation is the purpose. The mark of a successful conversation is that participants are engaged and sharing their thoughts and experiences. There are not set questions, answers, or solutions. If facilitators do not ask all of the prepared questions or “get through” the guide, that is perfectly fine.

Remember, the guide is just that: A guide rather than a script. Good facilitators let the discussion widen out to include the group’s own questions, but then bring it back to the line of inquiry. We do, however, always leave a few minutes at the end to wrap up the conversation and provide a sense of closure. Thank everyone for participating and go around the circle with a closing prompt (provided on your discussion guide; or feel free to come up with your own).

Communicating with a Co-Facilitator 

Taking time to establish roles between co-facilitators ensures that both of your voices are heard, and that the civic reflection runs smoothly. You can review the guide and decide which portions each of you will take on. A good strategy is to sit on the opposite side of the circle from your co-facilitator so that you can make eye contact to check in throughout the conversation.

More Information

The Center for Civic Reflection is here to help you have better, more impactful conversations. We provide a range of civic reflection services involving a range of time commitments and fees. We are happy to work with you to develop a specific program or support for your situation. Hosted by the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Salisbury University, we exist to advance the public civic mission of higher education.