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Three Lessons in Communication

By Sarah Moore on November 30th, 2017

As we finish the last of Thanksgiving leftovers, many of us are reflecting on the conversations that we had and didn’t have over the holiday. For the first time in years, my family didn’t talk about politics or where the world is going in a handbasket.

We did talk about food, though. We pressed my sister-in-law for the secret ingredient in her macaroni and cheese (“no, but really is there mustard in here?”). We talked about my grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe (which my mom and I finally confessed was straight from the Libby’s pumpkin can all those years), and about the summer it was hard to find good peaches.

Like mine, families across the country tossed a tablecloth over the elephant in the room and talked about the food they served on top of it instead.

But sometimes the hardest conversations are the ones we most need to have. Sometimes we need to gather around “the elephant” and analyze it. As people, communities, and organizations partner with others to improve health and wellbeing, there will be difficult conversations that highlight divisions. In these moments, we have to work a little harder to find common ground. During the last 15 years of Active Living By Design’s work, we’ve learned a few lessons that have helped.

Many community change initiatives can—and sometimes should—address more than one challenge. Approaching potential partners with only one health priority in mind can limit effectiveness. Community members often face more urgent issues that may seem to fall outside an initiative’s focus, but ultimately impact health and wellbeing. Try to relate healthy communities work to these concerns as much as possible.

A flexible healthy community frame can bring people together. Comprehensive approaches to community health initiatives can support more sustainable changes than a single strategy. For example, in addition to addressing obesity and associated chronic diseases, healthy eating and active living initiatives can also address social and health equity, educational success, economic development, air and water quality, community safety and revitalization, environmental justice, and responses to climate change. This expansive view of health creates opportunities for engaging new partners, building consensus, and setting common agendas. Similarly, accepting (or even adopting) the values and terminology of partners working on the same issues can build a coalition’s momentum. For example, advocates who prefer to speak of “livable,” “just,” “vibrant,” or “resilient” communities can be just as effective as those who prefer to speak of “healthy” ones.

Openness to multiple, broader frames provides greater opportunity to focus on root causes and sustain a movement. Building understanding of upstream or root causes of multiple health challenges and inequities, and helping identify solutions that solve multiple problems, increases impact over time. The flexible partnerships formed today offer the kind of leadership and support structures that can help communities address a variety of health and equity challenges in the future.

To turn these lessons into ongoing practices, strive for curiosity over certainty. Whether you seek to understand why someone else’s priorities are different than yours or just want to know what the secret ingredient is, it never hurts to ask a question.

Want to learn more? Explore the Communication chapter in Lessons for Leaders. Active Living By Design created this resource to serve as a “mentor in print,” providing practical, field-tested guidance to help leaders of healthy community initiatives be more proactive and effective. We developed accessible lessons, principles, and examples from the experiences and wisdom of many healthy community partnerships and their leaders.

Sarah Moore


Artist and advocate for natural places.