Talking together: a Manifesto for Brave, Honest Conversations - How public engagement needs to change for the times

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Protests, marches, petitions. Riots, police barricades, people injured and killed. Anger, righteous indignation, tragedy and discrimination. Natural disasters, food insecurity, terrorism, poverty. We have some real challenges on this small planet. Some real struggles we aren’t dealing with very well.

What we are doing a lot is talking at each other, over each other and about each other.

We need a new way.

I’ve worked in the arena of public engagement for 25+ years, planning and hosting conversations about high stakes, high emotion issues. And in that time I’ve learned a few lessons, mostly the hard way. This is a call to action, for more, for better, for a different way of solving our problems.

Picture source: IAP2 Canada

For 25 years the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has used the Core Values as the standard for meaningful engagement — for the process of bringing people together to talk about issues, and to make decisions as a result. The Core Values have served us well during that time — helping set a benchmark for meaningful public engagement and a standard for practitioners, organizations and communities to uphold. IAP2 presents awards regionally and internationally for projects and organizations that demonstrate this depth of commitment to the Core Values in public engagement.

In 2009, after much deliberation, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) created a different set of standards, called the Core Principles for Public Engagement. I was part of the team that helped refine these standards, which were presented to the Obama White House Office of Public Engagement. They are similar, and different than the IAP2 Core Values, and are more comprehensive in detail (the long version is here).

Picture source: NCDD

But the world has changed. And it continues to change. What worked 20 years ago, or 8 years ago doesn’t work today. Our societies and cultures are in a massive state of transition and flux. Technological advances; changes in how people connect, gather and exchange information and views; the impacts of globalization and climate change; rising public opposition, outrage and resistance to the status quo; polarization, demonizing and fear of those who are not the same as our group; staggering levels of distrust in public organizations and institutions….we are operating in a new unknown context and reality.

The good news is that I’m optimistic. I believe that chaos, messiness and challenges are enormous opportunities. They give us something to work with, they spark the desire for change to burn brightly, and they open us up to the complexity of what it means to be human on this small planet.

I think its time we went beyond “public engagement” and start to think in new ways. It’s time we embraced the reality of the world we are in today, and the world that is emerging. With all its challenges and turmoil, we hold the keys to making positive change real.

So here goes; a Manifesto for Brave Honest Conversations.

1. Practise Courageous Leadership:

It takes more than thoughtful decision-makers or a good process to make engagement meaningful. It takes courage to bravely have a stake, to commit to a tough conversation about issues that have no easy solutions, and to invite everyone in to talk together in ways that build something new. It requires clarity of purpose and integrity, to consciously choose solving the problem over winning or seeing your view as the right one. It takes leaders to host conversations that they don’t have the answers to rather than talking with stakeholders about easy issues, or waiting to come forward until they’ve crafted possible solutions to tough problems. It takes not knowing the outcome and going ahead anyway.

Picture source: Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

It takes practitioners taking a stand and advocating for civil discourse and meaningful process, and being held to account for the design and facilitation of brave, honest conversations that are really brave and honest. It takes practitioners saying “no, that isn’t meaningful or ethical or fair”about processes that are compromised and contribute to damaged public trust, because that doesn’t serve anyone.

It takes participants willing to commit to engaging with those who they may view as the “enemy” on tough conversations. It takes the ability to withhold assumptions, judgments, and the desire to try to see the other human being under the mask.

It takes the willingness to try and fail and not get it right. To acknowledge and accept and lean into our mistakes and mis-steps for the greater good and because we are committed to solving the real challenges that face us, rather than because we want to be right, look good or are afraid of what could happen. It takes being afraid and doing the right thing anyway, because it matters that we change the way we talk together about things that really matter or our own futures will be negatively impacted.

2. Work with the whole system:

We don’t sustainably solve the challenges that face us by focusing on one project at a time. When you pull back to 30,000 feet you see it isn’t about building a bridge or a pipeline, rezoning urban land, cleaning up a contaminated site or changing a health care policy. It’s really about balancing energy and the environment, dealing with racial discrimation and economic inequities or the impacts of colonialism. It’s about changing communities or creating safe living environments for all children, or access to health and wellness for everyone.

We need to stop having conversations about issues one project at a time, and start framing our dialogues around the bigger picture. Stop narrowing down who has a stake or a position or the ability to influence a specific project, and start thinking about who cares about the issue, and the longer-term impacts over time on human systems and environments.

We need to step back from the conflict of X or Y decision and instead find new ways of finding solutions to the larger issues that confront us. For example, once we’ve figured out ways of moving forward on energy and the environment, it will be easy to see whether the solution includes pipeline X.

Stepping out of the specifics and into the larger picture means we also expand our lens of who has power, influence and opportunity to participate in the conversation — and by doing so we expand the possible seats at the table. That enhances the views we hear and creates more possible solutions, more diversity of ideas, the potential of finding better ways forward that consider all consequences and outcomes.

3. Embrace the whole person:

It’s time we just agreed that feelings matter. They aren’t the only thing that matters, but they are important. And they aren’t just important until we can get people to focus on facts — they are part of being fully human, required for fulsome and sustainable decision-making, and a reality of having brave, honest conversations about things that matter. The sooner we release the myth that we are a rational, fact based society governed by science and data, the sooner we can move on to solving real problems. What we are is a rational, fact based society full of emotional, flawed, messy, beautiful human beings, and we will be far more successful at solving tough problems when we embrace the whole of our humanness.

It matters that we put the heart into our engagement processes and our tough conversations. Because caring is the key to building trust, and strengthening relationships. And its no coincidence that trust in public institutions has declined as we have increased our reliance on facts over feelings. Let me be clear — I’m not saying get rid of facts. Facts matter. And so do feelings.

When we have a conflict or public opposition on an issue, we can’t separate the issue from the people. People come with their whole life experience and values — how they’ve been treated by your organization; how the issue makes them feel; their fears, hopes and desires for the future; how other related issues connect to the topic under discussion in their lives. How many times have you heard “that’s not in the scope of this project”? People are more than the topic of your conversation or project, so engage with the whole person, in a conversation about the larger system, in order to build relationships, trust and find a solution to the real challenges.

4. Recognize right and responsibility:

IAP2 Core Value #1 says “Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.” It’s a powerful statement that speaks to the underlying value of democratic society. It creates a deep sense of right and infers power on those with a voice to speak it out loud and claim their rights. That value is not to be taken lightly, and must be exercised fully for democratic societies to thrive. However, it is not enough to have a right. A right lacks integrity without responsibility.

We live in societies where right is paramount — the right to protest, march, petition, disengage, blame, shame and ridicule, the right to attack, discriminate and slander. The right to my opinion, to free speech, to proclaim my views on twitter, facebook or in this blog. We’ve created an illusion that when we sign a petition, post on facebook or march in protest we’ve changed the world. We haven’t changed anything — we’ve contributed to the collective exhale of opinions, opposition or resistance without creating the future we are calling for. We haven’t build anything new, we haven’t said what we want instead of what we don’t want, we haven’t taken action that makes anything change. Often we’ve stayed in the comfort of our homes behind our screens, and voiced a righteous view. And we haven’t engaged with or seen into the hearts of those who see the world differently than we do, or who hold different opinions. Usually we’ve talked to people who believe like we do, and demonized and separated further from those who see the world differently, often justifying that they are wrong, and we are right.

Where does my responsibility lie? Responsibility for impact? Responsibility for outcome? Responsibility for others or the collective?

When we value right over responsibility, we are all for one, and no one for all. We value our own right to an opinion over the needs of our neighbours, those who are marginalized, or the collective good. We need to bring back responsibility — for the quality of our democracy, for the practice of talking with each other, for the ability to truly solve tough challenges in our lives, organizations and communities. We are responsible for the future we create.

5. Practice meaningful inclusion:

The dictionary defines inclusion as “The act of including, or the state of being included.”

I’ve long said that meaningful engagement includes representation AND inclusion. By that I mean that when we involve people in brave, honest conversations we need people at the table who represent different interests, groups, experiences or backgrounds. Many conversations start there. The challenge with a brave, honest conversation that includes only representatives is that they grapple with the key issues, work through perceptions, perspectives and possibilities to come up with solutions, learn together and build trust and relationships — and only they are changed by the conversation. The broader organization, community or public are not changed. Others not at the table are still in the place of right over responsibility, and frequently respond to the involvement of representatives as a reinforcing of the status quo and an imbalance of power. And they are often right.

If we expand a conversation to include representation and inclusion, we are identifying who we know needs to be at the table for the creation of sustainable solutions AND we are openly saying that we welcome anyone who cares, who wants to choose to participate, who wants to be part of creating a solution to come talk together with us. We reduce the risk of talking to the same people over and over again (or talking only to those who already hold power and influence), we remove the bias of talking only to like minded people who think like we do, and we expand the pool of values, needs and ideas we have to work with creating possibility for greater success.

It’s the only way forward. Together. A space for all of us at the table.

6. Come from a place of compassion and integrity:

No matter your role in a brave, honest conversations two key things are required.

It matters that you believe in the possibility of the conversation, and have faith in what can happen when people come together to talk with each other about tough issues. When you come from a place of unconditional, positive regard you manifest that in others and in the conversation. When you commit to working through the conflict and to finding solutions, that commitment echoes when things get heated. When you are open to possibility, to new ideas, to deeply understanding other ways of thinking and seeing the world you hold space for brave, honest conversations to emerge. When you practice empathy and commit to building trust and relationships, others follow suit.

When you know what you stand for, why you are showing up as a leader, participant or practitioner, when you consciously choose “yes” to finding new solutions and deeply commit to inclusion, trust, responsibility and the important conversations we need to have, you can change the world. It is about more than what you do or what you know, it is about how you want to be. First you need to choose where you stand, and what you stand for.

7. Do it again, and again:

Engagement isn’t about projects or one-time activities or events. It isn’t simple or easy. Brave, honest conversations require time, effort, trust and relationships. They require ongoing investment by organizations, communities and practitioners. They require us to recognize that engagement is an ongoing process, over time, and is about all of our interactions, connections and the inter-relationship between people in organizations and communities over the long-haul. When we do that we contribute to vibrant communities, thriving organizations and quality democracy. And that’s worth a brave, honest conversation any day.

Join me in this Call to Action. It’s time we all showed up courageously and called for brave, honest conversations for the issues of our time. It’s time we all stood up and said we are leaders committed to conversations that create a new and different world.


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