Can Public Engagement be Like a Bad Day at the Bank?

Over the years, I have had some interesting conversations with organizations, such as municipalities and school boards, that have delivered presentations to upset and disgruntled community members.

Prior to the presentation, they know the community is upset. Often, they know why.

To prepare, the team spends days (and sometimes weeks) putting their presentation together. They assemble the best, most logical ideas possible. And, when they deliver the presentation, they wonder why it fails to reduce the tension in the room.

I have often used an analogy to help them understand why the audience doesn’t “get it.”
Couple looking frustrated with sales person

I ask them to imagine their bank has made a major mistake with their account. They try to call and email the bank, but are told they can only fix the problem at their local branch.

By the time they get to the bank, they are agitated. When they start explaining their perspective, the person on the other side of the counter interrupts and says: "Before you go any further, I’d like to tell you how we do things here at our bank."

Compare this to the presentation delivered to the community by a municipality, school board, or other organization. The team knows the people in the room are upset or downright angry. This anger may even have been the catalyst for the public meeting being organized in the first place.

Like the misguided employee at the bank, the team is talking rather than listening. When you make an audience (especially an angry one) wait any length of time before answering their questions and/or listening to their concerns, it doesn’t matter how perfect the presentation. Nobody is listening.

Let’s examine how the core values for the practice of public participation can guide a more successful approach. The first of those states that public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have the right to be involved in the decision-making process.

To bring this value to life, the team needs to open a receiver-driven dialogue at the public meeting. The needs of the audience outweigh the needs of the team. Because they are upset, the audience is like the disgruntled customer at the bank. They are not ready to receive information. They first want their questions answered and their concerns addressed.

Without a receiver-driven process, it is impossible to achieve the second core value: Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision. If the team’s desire is public participation, they must listen closely to what the community has to say, and directly apply this information to their final decision.

Within any aspect of public engagement, the organization should be willing to listen more than it speaks. Demonstrating good listening skills within a receiver-driven dialogue is the surest path to achieving the values of public participation.

The next time you face a potentially disgruntled audience or community group, keep a couple of concepts in mind. Listen before you talk. And when you talk, communicate. Don’t transmit.

It’s the best way to prevent public engagement from resembling a bad day at the bank.