This website uses cookies for anonymised analytics and for account authentication. See our privacy and cookies policies for more information.

The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Engagement doesn’t have to mean formal

This opinion piece is 9 months old

In the run up to CoProWeekScot 2021 next week, Scottish Recovery Network’s Holly Hendry reflects on the impact of formality on engagement

At Scottish Recovery Network collaboration and valuing lived experience are central to our work. We want Scotland to be a place where people with lived experience are meaningfully involved in the design and delivery of mental health strategies and support.

Recently we’ve been running events encouraging people to think about what meaningful engagement spaces feel like for them. As a network officer this question is always at the forefront of my thinking when planning events and creating the conditions for participation.

The impact of formality

One of the things I often find myself reflecting on is the impact of formality on engagement. As a participant I find that formality can create a disconnect in the version of myself that I bring to a space. It can sometimes feel like restrictions are put in place before the engagement process even starts. Like the agenda and outcomes have been set before I arrive. I don’t know about you but when I am asked to contribute my views and ideas, I want to bring my authentic self. Formal spaces don’t tend to accommodate this so well.

Designed informality

I always feel more inspired when I’m surrounded by people who feel they can contribute their humanness. At Scottish Recovery Network we often talk about ‘designed informality’. It’s a term that was coined as part of the Making Recovery Real initiatives which five years on are still bringing people together and putting them at the centre of decision making, service design and practice development.

It is an approach that treats people as people and challenges the ‘them and us’ culture that often exists between those accessing help and those delivering support. As a facilitator I really like the term. It recognises the need for structure but flexible structure. The kind that gives space to the power and value of relationship building, open conversations and creative thinking. Structure that creates conditions that allow people to come together as equals and explore the best way forward to create positive change for them and their communities.

Let’s celebrate diversity

There are small things that support designed informality. A fun and inviting space with refreshments, coloured pens, paper tablecloths – inviting creativity and making people comfortable. Connecting up activities that focus on individual wellness (this encourages people to bring a bit of themselves). Use of first names and removing professional indicators such as lanyards – again supporting the break down of the ‘them and us’ narrative. These are small but powerful changes that can set the whole tone and feeling of the engagement space.

For me one of the most important things we can do is celebrate the diversity in knowledge, skills and experience that we can all bring and contribute. Spaces for engagement should nurture not restrict this.

I know from experience that moving away from formal traditional approaches such as consultation can be scary. It means stepping out of your comfort zone. It takes time, curiosity and a willingness to do things differently, often not knowing what the outcomes will be. But that is the beauty of it. Honest, open conversations and connections bring with them new ideas and solutions that can move us away from more of the same to real positive change that people want and need.

Engagement doesn’t have to mean formal but it should definitely be meaningful.

Get involved

Sign up to Scottish Recovery Network’s newsletter for more opportunities, resources and ideas to help you make mental health recovery real where you are or visit



Be the first to comment.