Answering YOUR questions about Brave, Honest Conversations: Edition #2

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I get asked a lot of tough questions in my work. People weren’t born knowing how to have brave, honest conversations and it can be really scary, intimidating and anxiety producing to have a tough conversation with a partner, a colleague or a large group of people talking about an important issue.

In this monthly series I tackle some of these tough questions. Every month I will address new questions that YOU send me. So if you’ve got a challenge, struggle or hope about brave, honest conversations send me your questions and I’ll put them in a future edition. You can find Edition #1 here.

This month’s question is one I get asked at EVERY training session about engagement and/or leadership. The question looks like variations on these inquiries:

How do we get senior leadership to try something new?

How do we get people who don’t see the value of engagement (examples are often given like engineers, project managers, technical experts, scientists etc.) to engage the public or stakeholders in a meaningful way?

How do I convince elected officials / senior management / leadership that what they are trying to do won’t work? Or get them to understand there is another way to do things?

How do I explain the benefits of trying new things / addressing public opposition or outrage in new ways to decision-makers?

How do I get people in my organization to understand the value and benefits of meaningful engagement? How do I get people to allocate the necessary time, money and resources to do engagement well?

These questions are all related to what it means when you have a culture of engagement in your organization — and when you don’t. A couple of months ago I wrote a blog about organizational culture and the five reasons why organizations don’t succeed in creating momentum for positive change, and what you can do about it. The issues I touch in that blog are all directly related to these questions in Edition #2. So start there and read that blog too.

Here are some answers to the questions listed here.

  1. There is no persuading, informing, convincing others about the things you believe — You can’t convince, persuade, inform or wish people into believing the same things you believe. People don’t change their views based on information alone; they change their views and behaviours based on a combination of experience, feeling and new understanding. So often when people see things differently than we do, we hope that by providing them with information they will see things differently if we explain things to them. However, facts don’t make people feel better. Tip: If you are tempted to try to persuade, convince or inform people so they will see the light and think differently RESIST the urge. STOP and pause. Think about how you feel when people evangelize to you about issues they care about but aren’t top of your priority list. It builds resistance rather than support.

2. Treat internal engagement like engagement in the public arena — If you want to build support for engagement you need to create the experience of engagement inside your organization. For people to feel comfortable having brave, honest conversations with people outside the organization they need to be in the practice of having those kinds of conversations inside the organization. Focus conversations on ASKING versus telling, in understanding your colleague’s or decision-maker’s needs and reflecting those in the approach. Build experiences where people feel what a meaningful conversation is like, so they want more of them. That will help them envision what the conversation will be like with the public. Tip: Start team meetings with icebreakers, run your project meetings with facilitated processes using the tools & techniques of engagement, ask people who are uncomfortable about engagement about what they see as risks, challenges or hopes for the conversation, and gently help people see that engagement is an expertise, discipline and practice the same as any other technical discipline.

3. You need a culture of brave, honest conversations internally — People weren’t born knowing how to have rich, deep conversations about important issues. There are countless issues inside organizations that need brave, honest conversations; harassment, work-life balance, stress, equal pay, organizational culture, decision-making processes, values and so many more. When we build cultures where we talk about our conflicts, disagreements, and struggles with openness, courage and compassion we solve our challenges AND we learn to talk together about the things that matter most. Tip: use your engagement skills and knowledge to design conversations for issues that are being talked about around the water cooler but not being talked about openly. Name the elephants stomping around the office and invite a conversation. Ask decision-makers to support a project where the organization tackles a couple tough issues internally. This builds experience that hard conversations are possible, and a sense of potential that they could happen with the public or stakeholders.

4. Reduce or remove some of those invisible lines we create in public organizations between administration and elected officials — There are boundaries between administration and elected officials in our public organizations, and they are there for many reasons. However, these boundaries become tall impenetrable fences in some organizations. Elected officials are seen as a sort of strange mythical unicorn herd, and assumptions and stories about their motivations, desires and needs are shared within the organization as if those stories are reality. Elected officials are people too, committed to serving the needs of their constituents, with concerns, hopes and challenges when it comes to engagement. They are also the first line of democratic process, where their role is to directly represent the views of those they serve. Tip: Start to build a practice of engaging with elected officials about their hopes, concerns and needs especially when it comes to highly controversial issues. Do it before the engagement is planned, not after the planning has been done. Remember that like all other professionals, elected officials want to get it right, and may need the experience of talking together about what will work, and what won’t work. Talking with them about perceptions, impacts, risks and benefits can help build support for new approaches.

5. Share the learnings, build the collective experience, grow, iterate and change — Lots of organizations have work units dedicated to public engagement, employee engagement or communications. Those units serve as centres of expertise within the organization, in the same way engineering or human resources are centres of expertise. However, they can also contribute to the sense that engagement is someone else’s responsibility rather than a collective responsibility for talking together about issues that matter. Tip:Create a community of practice to share experiences, lessons and learnings made up of people from across the organization. Create tools, case studies and lunch and learn sessions to share skills, knowledge and experience. Build capacity for brave, honest conversations as a core competence of all employees, decision-makers (and elected officials too where that applies).

6. Try and fail, and try again — There is no magic wand or perfect recipe for success when it comes to bringing people together to talk about issues that matter most to find solutions for moving forward. There are a lot of good practices (and quite a few bad ones — like let’s please all agree to never hold another town hall or open house on a controversial issue again…see a blog I wrote about that in 2016 here). It matters that everyone understands that engagement is risky business AND it is the only path to finding solutions that work. There are no guarantees of success or outcomes, and it is a journey grounded in relationships, trust and courage. That means everyone in an organization needs to start getting comfortable acknowledging when things don’t go well and inviting the sharing of lessons learned. When we have cultures of risk aversion and getting things perfect before we do anything we stifle creativity, innovation, growth and learning. When we try and fail and try again we invite possibility, change, innovation and new ideas. Tip: Invite people to brainstorm risks and create plans b, c, d, e and f so everyone sees it is an iterative, flexible process. Invite people to conduct participatory after action reviews so you learn together. Share those learnings publicly and throughout the organization.

7. Phone a friend — Sometimes decision-makers and leaders in an organization need to hear from someone outside the organization about what has worked, and not worked elsewhere. They need to expand the sight lines in the landscape so they can understand what other organizations have done well, done poorly and what they might experience. Lots of time someone external can deliver that information because their experience extends to a variety of sectors, communities and situations. Tip: Call an external expert and ask them to support the organization in extending its understanding. Call me and I’ll run a participatory workshop full of stories of what works — and what doesn’t — and what it means for you.

8. It starts with you — When you model courageous leadership and a willingness to step into brave, honest conversations in your organization you set a precedent for what you want to see in the world. This is a way of living, not just skills and experience you apply to an event. When you take a stand for talking together, you contribute to a culture of engagement. All of it takes time, energy, effort and leadership and it doesn’t happen overnight. What is that saying? A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.

By asking questions about creating a culture of engagement you are taking the first step. Keep walking, bravely leading every day.

Send me your questions and I will keep writing. My list of questions is getting long and varied. I look forward to hearing from you.