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Dialogue Partners

Top 10 List #2

At Dialogue Partners, we’re fans of top 10 lists: top 10 words of the year; top 10 foods that will make you healthy; top 10 wines of the year; top 10 places to see before you die…

So we thought, why not a top 10 list of things we’ve learned? 

In reality, this list could be the top 1000 things we’ve learned, but we know you might not read it if it was that long, so we just do 10 things at a time.  This is Top 10 List #2. To view the postcard version click here and the expanded version is available for download here.

Our other Top 10 Lists can be found on our Top 10 page.

10. The Rolling Stones had it right. So besides being one of the most successful bands in the world, and continuing to perform into their elder years, we’ve learned that these guys got a few things right along the way.  Remember these lyrics?

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes well you just might find

You get what you need

Oh baby, yeah, yeah!

We have learned that sometimes it is just as simple as asking people what they need, and honestly talking about what might happen if they don’t get what they want. That doesn’t mean that you discount or don’t consider or try to understand what they want, but sometimes hard decisions have to be made, and sometimes not everyone is going to like the final outcome.  That is just the way it is – better to put it on the table and talk about it than pretending that if they tell you what they want, then they will get it.  Just for the record, we don’t usually add the “Oh baby, yeah, yeah” when we facilitate the conversation.

9. Responsibility is a 2-way street. There is a difference between embracing emotion in your public engagement process and supporting people in the moment and creating a situation where people become the emotion they are feeling.  We often ask people:

  • What happened to you?  What will happen to you?
  • How were you hurt or will you be hurt by this?
  • How do you feel about this?

There is a place and time for these important questions, but once you’ve had these discussions, it is OK for you to ask other ones, that support people to engage in constructive conversation.  We could also ask:

  • What challenge are we facing?
  • How will you choose to respond to this situation?
  • What values will guide your actions / should guide our collective actions?
  • What do you need to see happen in order to participate?
  • What do your friends/neighbours/colleagues value or need?

These second questions empower people to have a role in the decision, to retain power over the choices to be made, and to engage constructively on issues that matter to them.

8. It’s not that hard to reach the “hard to reach”. First, let us say that we dislike the term “hard to reach” and we don’t know what it is really supposed to mean.  We’re talking about people who are NOT middle class, middle age, or already engaged.  Maybe we should say instead – It’s not that hard to reach “everybody else”.  People who live on low-income or in poverty, new immigrants or refugees, youth, the elderly or infirm, those who are experiencing homelessness or mental health issues….they are all just people whose lives might be different than yours or mine, but who still care about things and have a right to a voice.  It takes creativity and a commitment to reach them where they are right now, where they live, access services, or participate in their community. Sometimes it means sitting in homeless shelters or food banks, taking a video camera to the street, walking through impoverished neighbourhoods and talking to people on their front porches, or having people take pictures of what matters to them.  The ways and opportunities are countless but expecting them to come to your meeting won’t work, or having to write down their thoughts on a comment form, or  needing to speak up at a public meeting. They have a voice and you need to hear it or you are missing more than half the world.

7. Saying sorry has to mean something.  Apologies are powerful.  Apologies are meant to make someone who has been harmed or hurt feel better.  Apologies mean taking responsibility for the whole situation and what happened.  Apologies need to identify what you will do differently in the future.  Apologies need to demonstrate empathy and regret for what you have done. Unfortunately, apologies are the newly popular tool for reducing outrage.  The thing about apologies is that they don’t work to reduce outrage unless they are real, sincere, heartfelt and fulsome. So next time your public engagement process or resulting decision hasn’t gone that well, and you feel your self (or someone from your organization) tempted to say “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry you are upset or hurt”  – reconsider.  It isn’t going to make anyone feel better, and it definitely isn’t going to reduce the associated emotion.  If you really feel bad, if you are really prepared to take responsibility, if you have learned, if you really care, then go ahead and apologize.  It will mean something.

6. Empathy isn’t a strategy. If apologies are popular, then empathy is the new cool.  Here is the thing though: like apologies, empathy isn’t a strategy.  Empathy is about really caring deeply about the people you engage, even if you don’t care about the issue, or agree with them.  It is about asking yourself – what if that was me? What if it was my child whose school was being closed?  What if it was my community under siege by crime and drugs?  What if I might lose my job as a result of this decision?  Put yourself just for one minute in someone else’s shoes and just feel what you might experience if that was your life.  Bring tears to your eyes?  Good.  Empathy isn’t a strategy – you have to really feel it for people in the room to want to engage with you.  Just a word of caution – just because you can feel it doesn’t mean it should be about you.  You don’t get to cry or tell your sad story until later after the meeting with a glass of wine.  But if you feel your heart beating in that moment, then you will be better equipped to honour those in the room, to care for their issues and concerns as if they were yours, just for that moment.

5. The politics of division is here to stay. What do you picture when you read that?  My first thought is the Tea Party, but when I reflect on it, the scope expands to include protests, protesters, petitions, politicians making grandiose statements about right and wrong, media headlines, social media campaigns…the list goes on.  We live in a culture of fear, where people so often take a stand against something rather than for something, where politicians speak in sound bites and where there are winners and losers.  It just is the environment we live and work in.  That doesn’t make it right, but it also doesn’t make any of these groups or individuals wrong either.  They are expressing passion, interest, emotion – they care deeply and that is a wonderful thing.  The media will feed on this emotion, and use it in their headlines. These groups don’t want to compromise, and that doesn’t make them bad, it just makes your job harder and requires you to openly embrace them without judgment or censure, and invite them to the table.  They might choose not to come, but keep inviting them – and invite the media too.

4. Representative process just doesn’t cut it. We live in a democracy, and that means that every person has a voice and a right to that voice.  That means that my neighbor George would be a great participant on a committee about what should happen in our community.  But it doesn’t mean that George speaks for me – George speaks for himself and his experience in the community.  He brings his world view, his values, and his experience to the conversation, but he doesn’t bring mine.  It is disingenuous to think or suggest George could speak for me or that the input George would provide should be considered as the voice of our community.  Now I’m not suggesting George would say this, but I am saying that there are so many processes that suggest if George is present, my community is taken care of and we’ve had our say.  Now, if George sits on the committee, and I am also given an opportunity to attend a meeting, someone knocks on my door and/or I can go online to talk about the development application at the end of my street – then we’ve got good process that is BOTH representative and inclusive.  Take this to a larger scale:  I recently attended a talk where someone talked about the 108 people involved in a citizen’s assembly and how that process increased awareness and understanding, built capacity for democratic process and was representative.  Here is my response – it definitely built capacity and understanding for those 108 people, although not so much for the other 10 million provincial residents.  It improved democratic capacity for those 108, yes, but not for the other 10 million.  Was it representative? Yes.  Did those 108 people speak for me?  Definitely not.  You need both representation and inclusion to resolve conflict, make good decisions, build community and understanding.

3. Your process needs to speak for itself.  We all want to do a great job, to have people tell us we are good at our jobs, to have our accomplishments recognized.  The same is true in public engagement.  The challenge here is that if you say “I ran a really great process” no one will believe you, or worse, people will say you said that because you are biased.  And really, you might think you did a great job, but does that really matter?  I know your ego says yes, but it isn’t actually right.  Your participants need to say the process was good, and meaningful, and inclusive, and their voice was heard, and they understand more now than they did before, and they understand the views of others as well.  Your participants need to be able to say they understand how the decision was made, and what input was used, and what was not.  They should even be able to say that if they don’t like the final decision, they still think they were heard, and that it was a good process.  Your process has to speak for itself; it has to stand alone as a measure of success.  If you are the one to say it, you’ve lost the credibility, and really you aren’t unbiased any more, are you?

2. You have to go through the trench to get to the other side.  We know it would be so much easier if you could get from point a to point b in an easy, simple and manageable way.  That just isn’t the case.  Like in life, in public engagement the things that are emotional, passionate, and really important are the ones we work hardest for, and the things that yield the best results.  You have to immerse yourself in the emotion, in the complexity, sit in the chaos itself in order for the future to emerge.  We know, this sounds like there might be hugging.  There might be.  It is messy and sometimes hard, and often uncomfortable but we’ve learned avoiding it only makes it worse, and smoothing it over does the same.  Sit with it.  Embrace the fact you don’t know what to do.  Feel crappy.  Feel confused.  Be uncomfortable.  You’ll be amazed at what emerges from the chaos.  Trust us, it works.

1. Practice gratitude.  We put this item in our first top 10 list but we feel it is worth repeating and remembering again, and again. We believe this is the best job in the world, and we are so lucky to have it.  We believe the people we get to meet, who care about the issues under discussion, whose communities and families matter to them – they are a gift.  We are grateful that we get to help organizations make better decisions, that communities and people get a chance to access their voice or their stories, even just for the time we are together.  We feel privileged they trust us with their words and cares. Keep giving, keep believing, keep being thankful – life is short and you get back what you put into the world. We’re grateful for the opportunity to have learned enough lessons to be able to make a list like this.