Civility In Stakeholder Engagement
Doing some research for a few things I am working on I came across this note from the California Institute for Local Government. This also reminded me of the teachings from Robert Czerniak I received at New Mexico State University.
“A Note about Civility
Your goal is to persuade decision- makers to see the issue your way. Focus on the merits of your position. Even if you disagree about what’s best for the community in this situation, it doesn’t mean someone is a bad person. Questioning others’ motives or intelligence, being hostile, engaging in name-calling or making threats will not reflect well on you or the position you are urging. No matter how passionate you are about an issue, conduct yourself in a way that will add to your credibility and standing as a thoughtful member of your community.”
My work does now and always has involved the public. The public is broad. Lot of stakeholders in the public. Varying backgrounds, styles ect. Actually a critical need in effective stakeholder engagement is to try and understand where people are coming from literally and figuratively.
The public is not always “nice.” Nice is really open to interpretation. Best we can hope for is “civil.”
The manner in which we communicate and present ourselves is informed by education, communication style, and many other factors.
As a planner I was taught this — not word for word, but conceptually. And taught that if you are on the other side, you likely won’t get what you’re seeking by attacking, belittling, boarder-line slandering (or out right), or basically just being un-civil.
Understood that elements of civility are demonstrated through unique communication styles. Fair enough. One persons tone of voice for example can be construed as hostile by others. Allowing some venting is a great and necessary tool.
The process to allow some managed venting is a great way to develop rapport and build some empathy with your audience. There is a need to try and appreciate what makes people who they are and appreciate how they present themselves in a manner that is unique to them. Certainly this is not easy, and the management will feel like utter, uncontrolled, insane chaos at times. It will also look like it. I recall a project I did for the Berkeley, CA Housing Authority. In the first meeting, people fumed. They were clearly pissed off. They vented. Civil? Yes, because they were not buligerent, hateful, threatening, ect. They were just pissed because no one had taken the time in quite awhile to hear them out. Passionate for sure. Easy to dismiss. Absolutely because of the tone of voice, body language, message, everyhing. But dismissing them would be a mistake. Our client though was not impressed and wanted to fire us because we did not manage (made to attempt because it was obvious the people needed their time and space in their way, not mine).
I believe we feel often that we need to let our passion show out, to show the “other side”, how right we are and we should get what we want. And, I believe we like to assume that our style, or “just being honest”, gives us a pass on being civil. Gives us license to be abusive, disruptive unnecessarily, and just lack any level of respect. Allows us to get personal.
This was not the case in Berkely. There was no acting, there were real issues. As the new guys in the equation, showing passion was needed to deliver a point. And there was an attempt to be civil.
Clear thought. Clear points. Clear goals and objectives. These may not always be possible to achieve, passion does get in the way at times. That’s why circling back with folks is needed to make sure you try to understand them. That’s a civil approach. As is participating in that loop, and clarifying your impassioned statements when asked, or when you know you did a poor job communicating what your points were. That give and take is part of the information giving and getting, rapport development, and relationship building process.
Doing your best to treat others with respect and dignity no matter your level of passion should be a universally accepted requirement in my opinion. When it’s not met. Fair enough to conclude the discourse until that minimum level of civility can be reached. Take steps to re-engage if there is a real path forward to getting back to a civil discourse.
If you can never get there with someone verbally, ask for it writing.
If you still cannot reach a civil discourse in any manner. Maybe someone else can get there for you; after all personality clashes are real and get in the way of a civil discourse — changing a player on your team to break a communication barrier is very effective at time. If still not able to get there?
Well then you have to move on.
Sometimes you will just have stakeholders that you can never get civil with.
So how do you do still engage them? Best you do is provide information. But you are within your rights to not be expected to continue on with someone who is just plain uncivil.