Listening is critical during public consultation

A recent public meeting on the construction of a light rail transit (LRT) line in northwest Toronto illustrates why public meetings cannot rely on “traditional” approaches toward communication.

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You cannot and should not ignore questions to bridge to your message. And if the crowd seem to even remotely be saying “you’re not listening,” put your presentation away and answer their questions first.

The Toronto meeting was hosted by Metrolinx, a provincial government agency. Toronto councillor Georgio Mammoliti used it (hijacked it?) to reinforce his perspective that the $1.2 billion Finch LRT should be scrapped and replaced with more expensive subway service.

According to a Toronto Star article, residents “appeared to be divided on the LRT-versus-subway issue.”

The Star article says meeting descended to shouting when Councillor Mammoliti refused to let a Metrolinx representative finish a presentation about the LRT project. (I wasn’t there, so I can’t say if this was what was presented at the meeting, but Metrolinx has a presentation on its website about the Finch LRT.)

There are three concepts to be considered here that anyone involved in public consultation should consider.

First, questions should be answered, not ignored. At 1:07 of the video, a resident is interviewed by the CTV reporter. “I asked the question ‘what are you going to do for safety for the children’,” this resident says. “He started talking about the budget. I don’t care about the budget. I care about my kids.”

If Councillor Mammoliti was asked and he bridged to the budget, my advice would be that he might want to be perceived as a better listener, especially during an election year and at a meeting attended by someone who ran against him during the last election and may very well run against him this fall. When child safety is the issue, people are never swayed by talk of dollars, cents and projections.

If a Metrolinx representative was asked the question, the opportunity was missed to respond with: “Everything we can.” If people want to know what that involves, based on their understanding of the project at that moment in time and their own children, they’ll ask more questions. I would, and so would many others.

Second, people with burning questions care less about a presentation than they do about the answers to their questions. At 1:30 of the embedded video, the reporter points out that the Metrolinx presentation was cut short to move on to questions.

I’ve often counselled that when the room is divided, it can be prudent answer first and present later—if it’s still necessary to present at all. I’ve seen many situations in which dozens of questions answered clearly and concisely provides the community with everything it needs to know. If they want to know more, they can read it or inquire about it later. Sometimes, the "Contact us" slide needs to be the only one shown.

Third, the kiss of death in issues management is the phrase “you’re not listening.” In any form of public consultation, listening triumphs all. And there is no better way to demonstrate listening skills than answering questions clearly and concisely. Logically, you can’t answer someone’s question if you’re not actually listening.

If remembered and applied, these three concepts can help manage real or perceived hostility. When they’re combined with the polarization model (which I presented to the North American conference of the International Association for Public Participation last September in Denver), they’re a powerful force for ensuring that those affected by a decision can understand and potentially have input into that decision in a meaningful way.

And makes it less likely that the "other" side, whichever side that is, can hijack the meeting and decrease its success.

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As Canada's most experienced, credentialed and effective media training consultant, Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS has been providing media training as his core business for more than 25 years.

Contact Eric if you'd like to pursue better listening at public meetings, or if a balanced approach to media training is something you seek—one in which spokespeople learn to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, while protecting themselves and their organization every step of the way.