Vice President Client Affairs, Community Engagement
Somehow, someway, we made it to July.
“Time flies when you’re in quarantine.”
-Said no one ever.
In all seriousness, here we are, standing firmly in the wake of a Fourth of July holiday like no other.
This was the first of many, new versions of old holidays we’ll need to adjust expectations for, now and in the future.
What I’m realizing is the new version might not be so bad after all. Let me explain.
Fourth of July holidays have always been jam-packed in my family. We would flit and flutter from event to event, filling every vacant moment and leaving no room for anything unplanned or unstructured.
This year was different. COVID-19 kept us tethered close to home. Naturally, it was slower, smaller and simpler. We traded the “go big or go home” parades and celebrations of the past, for quiet reflection and connection, with our small, inner circle.
And in that small circle, all we had were vacant moments. There were no plans. There was no structure. To fill the space, we talked. We shared. We reflected on this past school year, took guesses about when COVID-19 might be “over” and managed expectations about what future holidays and birthdays might look like. And it felt good.
Now, it could just be the quarantine talking, but this really got me thinking. Let’s take my family’s experience and zoom out to where we are as a country. Collectively, in this moment, we all need the exact same thing: space for dialogue.
2020 has been hard. Period. As if dealing with a global pandemic isn’t enough, civil unrest across our country has us all reflecting and questioning. It prompts us all to wonder, "how will we recover?,” “how will things change?” and even “how can I talk with friends and family about what’s happening?” Answers to these questions seem daunting, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and maybe even a little hopeless.
While dialogue may seem like our biggest problem right now, it is also our solution.
To engage in dialogue is “to take part in a conversation or discussion to resolve a problem.”
There is no shortage of problems to solve. What we need is open, honest (and yes even uncomfortable!) dialogue for things to change.
As public servants and government communicators, we have an incredible opportunity in this moment to encourage dialogue, conversation and communication with the communities we serve. It’s uncomfortable, but we must lean into this reality and the uncertainty it brings.
How will we do it?
One of my favorite books is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen Covey. One of the most important (and difficult) concepts in Dr. Covey’s book is Habit 5: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.” Covey says this, “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Listening is the key to meaningful dialogue. Whether you’re launching a public participation campaign for an important project in your community or posting to social media, be ready to listen.
We are all different and see the world through different lenses. It’s difficult to fully understand something you haven't experienced yourself. Back to Seven Habits, Dr. Covey says when we dismiss another person's perspective and experience, we're creating a win/lose discussion. Win/lose discussions will not get us to the change we want to see in the world. Additionally, as government agencies, it’s important we shift our thinking to recognize as staff that, while we are certainly subject matter experts in our fields of communications, engineering or planning, our community members are subject matter experts in living in their neighborhood and accessing community services and programs we provide. Both are valuable perspectives that together will lead to better decisions by government agencies.
As government agencies engage in difficult conversations, we need to manage expectations both internally and externally about what we hope to accomplish. Let’s face it -- success looks differently now than it did in 2019, or even just a few months ago. We should expect the conversation to be uncomfortable and even a little messy. It might not feel like the conversation has a particular destination either. That’s okay. In times like these, community members need to “empty their cup” before they are ready to move past frustration and anger about an issue towards solutions. Sometimes just creating a safe space for this input is enough of a goal.
We recommend an internal planning session to identify goals and what success looks like before launching the engagement with the public. The session will also help you clearly articulate your intent with the public, letting them know how their input will be used and whether you plan on additional engagement opportunities in the future. Along these lines, never underestimate the value of bringing in a trained facilitator for difficult conversations. This allows staff to truly be present and listen to the feedback shared.
As government communicators, there has never been a more challenging time to do this work. The task at hand is daunting and, at times, seems impossible. We could get overwhelmed and throw our hands up. Instead, let’s eat the elephant one bite at a time.
Each project or initiative is an opportunity to create space for meaningful dialogue and two-way communication. (That’s the first bite).
The more we demonstrate our commitment and consistency to this approach, the better we get at it. (Second bite).
And then our communities begin to expect it from us. (And the third bite).
That is the moment we move beyond “us versus them” and earn their trust, making dialogue no longer our biggest problem, but our solution.