Friday, January 2, 2009

In my work with government and other folks who are designing and facilitating strategies to engage with the public on important issues, I always encourage them to adopt the following approach to consultation:

  1. Be prepared and curious. Come into the meeting room curious. Be curious about the people who are there, about how the day will go. Genuinely want to find out stuff, get interested in the discussions and ask stupid questions. Maintaining a role of respectful curiosity, grounded in good preparation will allow you to be detached enough to see the possibilities as they unfold over the day.
  2. Acknowledge that the heart speaks truth. People that care deeply about an issue will become quite emotional if they see that something bad is going to happen to that issue. They will speak out in emotional ways. It is a true reaction. You can’t lie when that kind of passion arises. So hear the truth, acknowledge that what they care about is real, and that it needs to be heard. It’s important that the client know that there is a real issue at the heart of the intervention.
  3. Reflect what is being said. All those communications courses where you practised active listening and reflected back what you heard felt contrived, right? Well, in practice it isn’t contrived - it actually works. When people say something, especially in a situation where they are “speaking truth to power” the most significant act you can do is to repeat what they said. To feel heard is a powerful salve. To BE heard is the goal of good consultation. So reflect back and ask questions for clarification or to test out a theory that what you have just heard connects to something that someone else said earlier. Then you are really engaged and your interlocutor knows it too.
  4. Build wholeness and sense the emerging story. There is nothing more frustrating than a consultation that is simply a set of speeches. Encourage people to connect their thinking with what has come before. As a facilitator listen for the emerging story and see how people are connecting their comments to that story. At the end of the day it will mean that you have something truly valuable, much more so than a collection of comments that stand alone and make no sense. Wholeness should be the goal. That is what makes consultation useful.
  5. Do not be attached to anything other than the container. Your client might have spent years working on the thing that is being ripped to pieces in front of them, but that is not your concern. If it is out there for feedback, you have to let the feedback come. As a facilitator, pay attention to the container, and ensure that as the piece is being ripped up that it is done so respectfully and constructively. Don’t let people get away with being “terrorists” in a meeting. Passion bounded by responsibility, leading to wholeness is what you are after. If there is anger, ask about what might be done to move forward. If there are dismissive comments, challenge them and invite people to share the alternative. Building and holding a well formed container, one that, as Williams Isaacs says, hold safety, possibility and energy, is your job.
  6. Coach, affirm and soothe. Your client might be raw before, during or after a difficult gathering. Coach them to listen and see what is being said, and help them to understand that it isn’t personal. And if it is personal, and there was a reason, get really honest with the personal behaviour that triggered the attack and help to move forward. Affirm their work, and help them to see that the people who gave time to provide feedback, in whatever form, are committed to what is happening, and as such, they are actually allies. It’s about seeing differently.
  7. Be honest. There is no faster way to get people angry than to lie to them. When bullshit detectors go off, the reaction comes fast and furious. As a facilitator I have ethical standards for working in these kinds of meetings. If something is a done deal and the consultation is just window dressing, I won’t do that job. If a client betrays the confidence or the trust that has been built with a group, in an ongoing process, I will quit the job. Honesty and trust are the only things you need to move past difficult public meetings. It is surprising how many people choose to go the other way, into deceit and mistrust.
  8. Ask real questions. Get really clear on what you want from people and ask them real questions. When folks provide feedback, probe with real questions that are aimed at drawing the conversation forward into something bigger. Real questions are questions with which something is at stake. If you can get your client to say “we really don’t know and your feedback will help us move forward” then you have overcome many of the hurdles that prevent collaborative relationships from evolving. Asking real questions means asking questions that put us all on the same side of something.
  9. Turn around cross examinations. You would be amazed how many people learn conversational techniques from watching courtroom TV. It’s appalling. Whatever benefit the adversarial legal system has for society, its form of debate is toxic. In many meetings people will ask impossible questions about decisions long past, or worse still, will ask a series of questions which can only be answered with “yes” or “no.” These questions are loaded with assumptions, and the good news is it’s a simple matter to turn them around. When someone says “Have you taken into consideration that your building will destroy this forest?” you have a tremendous opening to begin a conversation with that person about values. Ask “So for you it’s important to preserve that forest. How do you see this project negatively impacting the forest? What kinds of ways might we mitigate that impact? What do we need to know about the forest that seems to be missing?”
  10. Debrief the deeper learnings. After the meeting is over, build in time to reflect about the content and the process, but do it in a deeper way. Talk about the story that emerged, the places people were attached to that story and the reasons why heart showed up. Think about what made the meeting work well and get a handle on the strategies that were used. Reflect on improvements for next time.
As we move into the OCP review here on Bowen Island, I would add one more, and that is to include your expert stakeholders and community members in the design. To that end, what if the initial public conversation on the Bowen Island OCP process was around this question:

"What would an OCP review process look like that built social capital and community engagement rather than depleting it?"

I am willing to host this conversation with anyone else who would like to join me.


  1. Helpful post on gathering public input, especially for me, at least, the last couple on turning cross-examinations on their ear and debriefing. I'm the CAO for the small town of Berwick, Nova Scotia, so I'm called upon quite a bit to engage the public. It's notstop learning, that's for sure.

    Appreciate your effort here!


  2. Thanks Bob...glad you find this helpful.