Tips for communicating with emotional stakeholders

29 06 2010

Part of our job as P2 practitioners is to deliver difficult news. Decision-making processes often result in outcomes that carry impact to a few so that there may be a benefit to many. In infrastructure, this frequently takes the form of property impacts or change in access to one’s property. And there is little else that holds more emotional attachment than one’s home and business. As I prepare for a neighborhood meeting with property owners this week, I am reviewing my list of tips for communicating with emotional stakeholders:

  1. Mentally prepare ahead of time. It takes a lot of energy to meaningfully engage in contentious issues. Accept that it is okay for people to be emotional and be willing to let people vent their fears and frustrations in order to achieve a more productive discussion later.
  2. Clearly communicate the purpose of the meeting or conversation. Don’t try to cover everything all at once. When emotions are high, focus on the most important pieces of information or select actions that must take place now. By stating a clear objective, you can work with emotional stakeholders on addressing a single issue rather than taking on a world of issues.
  3. Be aware that some stakeholders are hung up on past actions. Acknowledge that you have no authority over previous commitments and focus on what can be done today.
  4. Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. Practice good listening by being present of mind and asking questions to help understand the source of concern.
  5. Be sincere. Acknowledge that you understand the concerns you hear. Offer to equip people with information about the process and circumstances of the project so that they can fully participate.
  6. Don’t defend, but correct. When people are misinformed, it is important to supply accurate information. Do this in a way that corrects the misinformation and resist the tendency to defend the right information or point fingers about bad information sources.
  7. Demonstrate you are listening. Take notes and summarize what you have heard. Let stakeholders know what will happen with their comments, including how the project team plans to respond to comments received.
  8. Don’t make commitments. Acknowledge that you do not have authority to make a specific commitment, but share the knowledge you have about the topic.
  9. Identify a next step or action the stakeholder can take. Stakeholders are more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation when they know what the next step is or feel like they can do something about it.
  10. Know when to walk away. In a situation where a stakeholder is behaving irrationally or abusively, close the conversation and move on. Ask the individual to come back when they can discuss things in a more civil manner or simply state that you do not tolerate that kind of interaction.

Perspectives: An intelligent public

22 06 2010

Far too often, I overhear conversations about how the average citizen doesn’t understand public processes or doesn’t care. Such comments have an overtone of discrediting the average citizen as apathetic and uninterested. I take issue with this view and adamantly disagree!

I think most people care about their communities and decisions that impact their lives. Most people would take interest if they understood how a decision would impact them and how they could easily engage in the topic. Quite simply, people are too busy living their lives and taking care of their day-to-day business to start thinking about the future or getting involved in an issue that sits on the periphery of their concerns.

If you work from the perspective of expecting an intelligent and interested public, you begin to ask more meaningful and productive questions, like:

  • How can we make the information relevant?
  • What are the most important pieces of information people need to know?
  • How can we facilitate feedback so busy people can easily participate?

If you expect the best from your public, you will be motivated to serve them well and will experience good results.

Welcome Seattle NTI class!

15 06 2010

NEPA & Social Media

Social media is inherently participatory and holds great potential for public participation. But it is also relatively uncharted territory which makes some public agencies nervous about using it. What are the risks? What are the legal implications? How should social media comments be addressed in formal public processes and comment periods?

One area that I am watching with interest is how social media is applied to environmental studies. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires some form of public participation at specific project stages, but it does not dictate how public outreach is to be conducted. That allows individual agencies and project teams to determine the outreach methods most appropriate to the project context.

I have started collecting examples of NEPA projects using social media. A couple of posts from the blog at provide tips on archiving tweets for an administrative record and examples of NEPA projects using Facebook. There will be much to learn from these early examples.

The key in the growing social media environment is to determine how you will use these resources and clearly spell out the parameters of use for the project team and for your stakeholders. Just as you would clearly explain the role, responsibilities and use of input from a stakeholder committee, the same should be done for social media sites established for a NEPA study.

If you have been using social media tools for a NEPA project, I’d love to hear about it. Please submit a comment that describes your experience!

It’s summer!

8 06 2010

It’s that time of the year … from Memorial Day to Labor Day people are tuned in to summer fun and less likely to be in the office. Vacation schedules, ball games and barbeques preoccupy Americans’ free time. Does this mean public processes should be put on hold? I say, No.

When public feedback or information needs to be provided, don’t put it on hold for three months on the assumption that nobody pays attention during the summer months. You can make allowances for the possibility that some of your stakeholders will be out of town, such as longer lead times or longer review periods. Public outreach during the summer also shouldn’t be the only opportunity for participation on a given topic. If it is, be sure to construct a well-thought-out plan with multiple venues for participation and plenty of time to respond.

Summer weather provides some opportunities that may be missed during other seasons. It is a great time to canvass door-to-door or meet people where they are at during city festivals or local tournaments. Outdoor gatherings can reduce barriers and increase visibility in grassroots outreach.

One of the most memorable outreach campaigns of my career was a two-week tour of a mobile billboard in July. Named the “Talk Truck,” we held nine gatherings at the billboard in parking lots within potentially impacted neighborhoods that were notified using door-to-door fliers the day before. We debated whether or not to engage in this outreach in late-July (especially in Utah with its July 24 Pioneer Day state holiday), but decided to proceed. The truth of the matter is that people will come out when they may be impacted and you make it easy for them to find you (like holding a meeting in a grocery store or elementary school parking lot).

So, look for opportunities to capitalize on your outreach programs during the summer months. It shouldn’t be a three-month vacation from your stakeholders!