Who are these people, and why do they hate me?
“My mommy says you’re trying to kill me and my baby brother. I hate you.”
As I looked at the adorable little girl who said this, my mouth opened, but no words came out. For those of you who know me, you know how unusual that is.
It happened just before I was to kick off a public meeting – as I’ve done hundreds of times, for dozens of clients. I’ve been yelled at, threatened, and the recipient of a variety of unseemly hand gestures, yet this one little girl got to me.
What could her parents have told her? And why did she hate me? More importantly, what could I do about it?
Ideally, public involvement begins early in the process, before people get upset. But too often, we find ourselves dealing with situations after the lines have been drawn in the sand. Victims are angry. Trust and credibility are gone.
Anger, Fear, and Frustration
People often fear change, particularly when they feel they will lose something. Whether they voice it or not, the first question on a person’s mind is How will this affect me? From fear of the unknown, comes frustration. People are frustrated with their lack of power (perceived or real) regarding decisions that affect their lives. And people get angry when they think that they’ve been let down, misled, or lied to.
Tips to keep in mind
Of course there are no cookie-cutter answers to any public participation project or in dealing with situations that have already gone bad, but here are some basic principles that can help.
§ Respond carefully and never trivialize people’s feelings. Listen not only to the words being said but also to the context. Understand the feelings and values of the speaker. Learn why they are saying what they are saying. When you respond, consider not only your words, but also their context. Demonstrate that you’ve truly heard what they said.
§ Respond humanely and don’t use jargon. Professionals tend to understand and speak their own language. It is important to translate technical terms and to use plain language. Communicate in the language and culture of your audience.
§ When people speak emotionally, don’t just respond with data. Scientists, engineers and other professionals are trained to deal with issues professionally and dispassionately. However, people whose lives are affected by the issues may react very emotionally and take it very personally. And if you were in their shoes, you would too. Don’t be afraid to let your empathy show.
§ Don’t be defensive. When we are attacked, even verbally, it is human nature to defend with a force equal to the offense. In situations where trust is already low, assume a more neutral position.
§ Acknowledge past misbehavior when it’s appropriate. It may drive your lawyers crazy, but remember that an apology is not necessarily an admission of guilt. If you screwed up, be prepared to apologize – repeatedly if necessary.
§ Admit to problems. It may be difficult for professionals to admit that they don’t have all of the answers. Granted, you should do your homework, but it’s okay to tell people what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re trying to find out.
§ Explain achievements with some humility. It’s natural to want to remind your critics of your successes. In a crisis you may be able to draw on goodwill you’ve banked in the past, but you have to draw from that account carefully, and only when people allow you to do so.
§ Be accountable and involve people in decisions. It is important to inform and include people at the earliest possible stage, even if they are already angry. The longer you wait, the more outraged people will become. Find appropriate ways to give some control to the people affected. Use a neutral facilitator.
§ Dig out people’s real concerns. Peoples’ emotions may make it difficult for you to determine the cause of their true fears. It may take time and it may be unrelated to the issue at hand, but it’s important to understand.
§ Work with the media. If your situation is newsworthy, it’s in your best interest to learn to work effectively with reporters. Be the one to approach the media, or else they’ll come to you when the story is hot.
§ Be accessible, and communicate individually or with smaller groups. Be willing to meet people on short notice, on their turf, in ways that work for them, and under circumstances that they control. The best communication occurs one-on-one. Your goal is to build relationships, and that takes time.
International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Certificate Course
Starting September 2008, Arizona State University’s (ASU) College of Design will be offering the IAP2 Planning, Techniques and Communication 5-day public involvement Certificate course that I’ll be co-teaching with my pal Dr. Ruth Yabes. Classes will be at ASU in downtown Phoenix which is significantly easier to navigate than the Tempe campus and close to several hotels if you’re coming from out of town. As a bonus, this course receives AIA/ASLA LEUs and 12 APA CMs. If you have any idea what those acronyms mean, you’re probably very excited about this.
To register click on http://design.asu.edu/pdacademy/workshops.shtml If you have any questions about the IAP2 certificate classes or you’d like more information about our other High Stakes Communication, Conflict Resolution, and Consensus half- and full-day custom classes, call me at 602-266-5556 or