"And another thing!"
Several minutes in, and the politician was still shouting. Loudly. The gist was: this new project is bound to fail. And by the way, this was all my fault.
I was in the hot seat with two senior project managers watching me as this elected official gave me the hairdryer treatment. That project? My fault. Those proposals? My fault too. And the way he was going, the terrible summer weather was probably down to me as well. Never mind that I was in a neutral role with a brief to engage with partners with the project in question. Never mind that some of the responsibility for the potential problems he mentioned were more within his power to change than mine. This high-powered man continued to rage at me as my two companions watched ever more quizzically to see what I would do.
Not all people like change.
You might say change is inevitable, but according to Keith Grint, Professor of Public Leadership at Warwick University, 75% of change programmes fail on their own terms. So those skeptical of - or even downright angry about - change may have a point.
But that's hardly solace to those of us in the environmental planning sector who want to innovate. The risks of failure can be heightened when there are clashes of legislative, business, environmental and community interests. With money ever tighter, it’s tempting to skimp on consultation and engagement. This means there is a high risk of more time and money being wasted later on as conflict will inevitably surface and things will go wrong that could have been identified earlier - if only we'd listened. It’s easy to roll our eyes at the irate, purple-faced senior engineer or dismiss concerned residents, local fishermen and environmentalists as NIMBYists and troublemakers. Those worried about change may well have a less than appealing way of expressing themselves. It’s oh so tempting to avoid them altogether. But they have valuable information which they are more than willing to share if we can learn to engage and listen.
As a seasoned project manager with over twenty years' experience of community engagement and consultation, I know how a good consultation will clarify issues, assess risk, create connection and build a pool of knowledge. This feeds into a dynamic planning process, generating practical solutions to cut down on error and create the largest possible base of information and ingenuity for problem solving.
Engaging with people we find difficult is tricky, but not impossible. There are some simple, though not necessarily easy, skills to make your chances of successful engagement much higher and turn angry accusations into pure gold.
1. Don't listen. That is, don't listen to insults, assumptions, blame and judgments in their raw form. Instead, translate them into useful information about the project. My angry politician said we were a useless rabble that didn't care about anyone. This is great information! But only when put through our inner translator. My inner translator guessed that, based on what he'd said, he cared about the impact of the project in the people he served, wanted efficiency, to be listened to, and perhaps some clarity about relevant policies and processes. My inner translator kept me focused and wanting to find out more rather than going into "fight or flight" mode.
2. Be ignorant. Be without an agenda. Be genuinely curious about what's going to emerge from your conversation. Concentrate on the person or group you are engaging with. Can you sit with what's going on with the person? As my politician raged and banged the table, I noticed and then set aside my own feelings and focused in on what was happening in the room. Curious about what was behind the anger, I was able to wait for the table-thumping to end rather than get defensive about my own position.
3. Be a nobody - be "omni-neutral" and listen first, then test your best guesses. Avoid submission or aggression, and avoid making assumptions about what you know. Reflect back what you *think* you heard. You might say something like: "Have I got it right that what you're saying is...?". Otto Scharmer of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology puts it this way: "Suspend your voice of judgment to see the situation through the eyes of your interviewee. What matters at this point is not whether you agree or not with what your interviewee is telling you. What matters is that you learn to see the situation through the eyes of your stakeholder."
4. Do listen. Once my politician had felt heard, he didn't exactly start singing the project's praises, but he did stop shouting. Instead, he started to list a number of reasons why the project should not be licensed: We weren't talking to the right people. There were concerns in the community that the project would cause adverse impacts. I was able to take valuable questions back to the project team. Was it worth engaging with more people based on what he'd said? Were the community's concerns valid and if so how could they be addressed? Who else could we talk to to find out? And was there a case for looking for a better mix of experience in the partnership group?
5. Be awkward. Back with your project team, voice the difficult questions raised. Seek out more people with viewpoints that nobody wants to hear. Teacher and writer Miki Kashtan argues that people like my politician are potential "elephant guardians", as in, the person who points out the elephant in the room. What's the betting that those 75% of change projects that fail on their own terms had a host of possible elephant guardians who had much of the information needed for a successful project, if only they'd been heard?
The meeting came to a close. The politician had been able to have his say. I had a list of useful questions for the project team and had passed on some accurate information about relevant legislation and policy that he was unaware of. I had sat with his anger without running away, biting back, going into apologetic mode or blaming others, despite a couple of heated, even personal, attacks. My clients asked me how I was able to “hold my ground”. As well as the points in my listicle above, I'd say it was my fascination with people's viewpoints and understanding that everyone has a part to play in projects that touch them, whoever they are.
While it can be physically, emotionally and even intellectually draining to face people that we don't agree with, progress is possible through skilled engagement and a determination to find the point where our interests meet. Not only that, they are often the people who have the most valuable pieces of information to avoid catastrophe. Just plug in your inner translator first.
Esther Cook MA
Associate Senior Consultant - Social impacts, communication & community engagement
Marine Planning Matters Environment Consulting
Grint, Keith “Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions”, leadershipforchange.org.uk, August 2007
Kashtan, Miki “Strengthening Collaboration Through Encouraging Dissent”, Psychology Today, March 2016
Scharmer, Otto “Theory U: Leading from the Future
as it Emerges”, Berrett-Koehler, 2016