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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tigher shot
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.


Managing Polarization in Public Consultation

angry crowd polarization 3During a presentation to the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) North American conference in Denver this past September, I had the pleasure of introducing participants to the polarization model, a strategic tool that helps my clients manage polarization, and the real or perceived hostility that often accompanies it, while being interviewed by journalists and during all forms of public consultation.

“Polarization arises because of issues,” I explained during the session. “And the dictionary defines an issue as an unresolved problem with the potential of escalating into a dispute.”

Theoretically, every response to any issue can be mapped along a spectrum that goes from openly hostile on the left side to openly supportive on the right, with no opinion somewhere in the middle.

“When someone takes issue with a perspective, especially during a public meeting, they are making statements or asking questions that feel emotionally charged,” I outlined during the session. “What’s the natural instinct of the person on the receiving end?”

Often, the person answering attempts to change the opinion of the person strongly expressing an opposing opinion. The goal is to bring that person, willingly or unwillingly, to the supportive side of the spectrum.

This can lead to a tug-of-war. When that happens, nothing gets resolved. No opinions are changed.

Whether opposed or supportive (and there are often many more opposed than supportive), everyone walks out of the meeting not having changed their opinion. Worse yet, they may move away from the logical toward the emotional end of the spectrum.

This is polarization.

media training polarization model
However, research shows that the further you go from the middle to the outer edges on each side of the spectrum, the more you go from a logical to an emotional perspective.

There are only three opinions about any issue. Positive, negative, and none. And there are only three things you can do with these opinions.

You can reinforce a positive opinion. You can neutralize a negative opinion—not necessarily change it but neutralize it. Or you can form a latent or unformed position.

When issues arise, there is little or no need to form opinions; the issue has taken care of that task because issues formulate opinions. To manage polarization effectively, therefore, two things need to happen. First, the organization’s perspective needs to be reasonable, rational, ethical and supportable. If it is, it’s defensible.

Second, the organization can best defend its perspective by answering questions about it, not reacting to statements or sending even more information to the audience in the hope that somehow they’ll overcome their emotional anxiety and understand what is attempting to be done.

If someone makes a statement that seems to drag the discussion to the left side of the spectrum, the receiver of that statement has two choices. He or she can politely ask the person to ask a question, or he or she can turn the statement into one or more questions, and ask and answer them succinctly.

And when it comes to questions, the more the merrier. This means that the person answering questions should be clear and concise in doing so.

“I actually believe most questions can be answered in ten words or less,” I explained during the session. “Answer the question and stop talking. If there’s even the remotest hint of polarization in the room, you won’t have to wait long for another question.”

Supports Transparency
Indeed, clear and concise answers to questions actually support the concept of transparency, which is important to any form of public consultation, essential to building trust, and increasingly critical in a wired world where everyone with a smartphone can feed into traditional and social media. By definition, consultation means listening, and I’ve long believed that the best way to demonstrate listening skills is to answer questions clearly and concisely.

“You can’t answer someone’s question effectively if you’re not actually listening,” I explained to participants. “But, more importantly, my working definition of transparency is ‘ask me anything, I have nothing to hide.’

“In a tense environment, answering questions enables the organization to demonstrate transparency, which allows those who have an opposing opinion, but a logical perspective, make their own minds up about what the organization is attempting to achieve.”

If done effectively, this approach can change opinions to the point that those who came in with an opposed but logical perspective may very well change their opinions, if for no other reason than they become disillusioned with those who are opposed and emotional.

The Skill of Answering Questions
Finally, I provided insight into how IAP2 practitioners can guide their organization to answer questions effectively.

I’ve long believed that the skill of answering questions is the least developed skill in human interpersonal communication. To improve that skill, three words are important: pause, answer, stop.

When you are asked a question, pause and think. Not only is it polite, but it enables you to find the best answer for the question, which is almost always the shortest possible answer.

Answer the question that was asked, and only the question that was asked. And, as soon as you’ve answered the question, stop talking and wait for more questions.

If the organization’s logic is reasonable, rational, sustainable and defensible, pause-answer-stop enables the audience to explore that logic and come to their own conclusion.

“This approach leads to opinion change, which I’ve seen and demonstrated hundreds of times during my career,” I concluded during my Denver presentation. “At the very least, it leads to better outcomes than an emotional tug-of-war every single time.”