We need more brave, honest conversations. We need more courageous leaders.

  • Violence in Charlottesville.
  • Climate Change impacts destroying property, wildlife, the environment.
  • A growing divide between rich and poor.
  • Discrimination, polarization and a rise in hatred.
  • Globalism and the refugee crisis.
  • Depressing levels of trust in government, media and big corporations.
  • Addiction, substance abuse and family violence.
  • Impacts of colonization on indigenous peoples.
  • Burnout, stress and a lack of innovation inside companies.

Should I go on? The list is endless. All these challenges are facing us, and there are no easy solutions. But there is a different way.

The answer is inside each one of us.

To show up, to pull our heads out of the sand, out of our devices, off our couches and CHOOSE TO MAKE CHANGE. When we sit complacent or silent or talk only to those who agree with us or have the same views, we contribute to the challenges we face. When we choose to have a voice and use it for the collective good, we are part of action for change.

When we make a choice to be part of a brave, honest conversation about the tough challenges in our world we OPEN THE DOOR TO POSSIBILITY by talking to people who are different than us, who hold different values and views, who see the world through different eyes and have different experiences. You can’t change the world with your Facebook friends, but you might be able to change the world by opening your mind to different views so you can help find solutions that work for all of us.

When you choose to LET GO OF ASSUMPTIONS AND OPEN YOUR HEARTyou can engage with people you are thinking of right now as the enemy, or as wrong, or as evil. You can let go of your need to be right or to win, and recognize we inhabit one small planet, we all live here and its in all of our interests to solve the challenges that face us. There is no winning if some of us lose.

When you acknowledge your fear and discomfort and choose to STAY IN TOUGH CONVERSATIONS TO FIND A WAY FORWARD you embody courage and choose leadership over the mob. When you reach out to someone whose values are different than yours, who you are in conflict with and bravely say “Let’s talk.” you allow for a different future than the conflict trodden path we are walking now.

After 25 years working on high stakes, high emotion public engagement projects I was asked the other day why I’ve started a new company. These are my reasons.

The world needs a new kind of leader. Leaders who show up, stand up and bravely step forward to solve the problems we face.

The answer in solving the challenges we face in our homes, communities and organizations is not in the conversation between community or stakeholders and government or company. The answer is not in the dialogue about the project, or how we spend the budget better, or build the bridge or where we put the pipeline. When the project is over we go back to our couches and devices and the world is no better, and sometimes its a little worse.

After 25 years of public engagement I know the system is not working. Yes people have a right to a voice, and when decisions are made those decisions should reflect and consider that voice. Projects should gather the insight from a variety of voices in an inclusive way and people should have the information they need to participate meaningfully. However, in so many ways we are focusing our conversations on the easy stuff, the simple stuff. We’re mostly not talking together about hate crimes, racism, gun violence or the harm we’re causing the planet. We’re not teaching people to speak to each other with love, to reach out and seek connection and common ground and solution. In fact, we’re teaching people to demand what they want as the solution at all costs, and that the answer is in shouting about what they DON’T want, not what they DO want. We’ve eroded trust in government, decision-making and even the media now to the point that we don’t know which way to turn. I say “we” purposely because aren’t we the people who participate or choose instead to sit back and comment on Facebook, or protest and also demonize the other side, who are in the role of decision-maker but who check the box on gathering citizen, employee or stakeholder input so we can say we did and then do what we planned anyway? These are OUR communities and organizations and we need to choose differently.

It breaks my heart. And it moves me to tears. And it calls me to action to know I’ve got no choice but to be part of building something new and different, where we hold the really tough conversations bravely and honestly, with space for all of us, and we find solutions together.

We need a new way.

I’m inspired by so many beautiful leaders before me that call to a world of possibility where we come together to solve challenges together. Barack Obama tweeted this quote of Nelson Mandela’s on August 12th about the Charlottesville violence. 4.4 million people liked it and 1.7 million people retweeted it. It is the most popular tweet ever on twitter, and it gives me hope for the future.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ~Nelson Mandela

The answer is in each of us, in how we want to lead our lives, in how we want to show up, and in how we come together to address the challenges we face. The answer is in an army of brave leaders who choose hope, connection and possibility. The answer is in leaders willing to have brave conversations about the things that matter, conversations that create space for everyone not just the folks who agree with them.

Join me. Let’s talk. In our homes, communities and organizations. Let’s bravely lead our own lives, so we can lead where we work and live. Let’s step into the conflict and the challenges with open hearts, integrity and courage. Together we can find solutions to the challenges that face us. Because every change starts with a brave, honest conversation.

Leading from nothing: why “holding space” is your most important leadership skill

Photo credit: National Geographic

Photo credit: National Geographic

“Retreat 3 is a week of learning to lead from nothing.”

I’m part way through a year long Leadership program with the Coaches Training Institute and as I recently headed into Retreat 3, I was thinking; What is going to happen here? What are we going to learn about NOTHING? How do you lead from NOTHING?

And yet here I was. I thought I would be able to connect my experience of facilitating tough conversations and “holding space” for people in dialogue to what I would learn in this retreat. With my work focused on high emotion and conflict I was fairly sure I knew what holding space was and how to do it. Turns out I had a lot more to learn.


The more work I do in creating shifts through dialogue and brave conversations, the more I realize I have so much more to learn. Twenty-five years of experience is a drop in the bucket of what there is to know about the power of this work to change the world.

What is holding space anyway? Why is it a leadership skill? Leaders inspire others to make choices or take actions towards a goal or vision. Leaders works with others to make change happen, whatever kind of change they believe is needed. Leaders empower others to be better.

In order to do that, leaders need enormous self-awareness, authenticity and deep commitment to their beliefs. Leaders need to create from others, to draw from them potential and possibility, and to lean in to others as well, to bring new ideas to life that couldn’t exist without the energy of 2 or more working together. Leading from “nothing” becomes an important skill when it allows leaders to read, understand and work with the energy and possibility in the space around people and issues, and the space within themselves.

To make the concept less nebulous, think about a few tangible examples: reading the tension between people or groups; understanding that there is something that needs to be said that no one has the courage to say; following an urge to ask a question that seems off topic because your intuition tells you there is another issue underlying the one you are talking about with people; seeing the bigger picture and how 1 issue connects to a system and bringing that into focus; and clearing the space inside you so you can be receptive and aware of what is happening with others.

Leading from nothing allows the future to emerge.

In 2015, Heather Plett wrote a blog called “What it means to hold space for people, plus 8 tips on how to do it well”. It’s a beautiful blog about creating a supportive, empathetic, loving place for other human beings to be held and nurtured and cared for, especially in tough situations. I don’t want to repeat and duplicate Heather’s good work, and think we could all aspire to step into the 8 tips she offers. So if you haven’t read her work, start there. I want to build on it. After spending a week in the woods learning to lead from nothing, I offer insights from a “yes, AND…” perspective to the work of holding space, and leading from what you cannot see.

#1 Create a stake and live in it: When you are leading a session/event and interacting with others it’s really important to have something to ground yourself. I like to ask myself 3 questions: What do you believe? What do you bring? What are you in service to? Let’s look at an upcoming situation — I am leading a workshop next week with 60 leaders in the health care field, talking about conflict and controversy with the community. I BELIEVE that when I am courageous and open hearted I can serve others. I BRING my depth of experience. I am IN SERVICE TO their growth as leaders in connecting with and serving their communities. Put it all together and my stake is “When I am courageous and open hearted, I bring my experience in service of stronger connections and better care.” This stake will serve me in creating a space for learning, deep conversation and growth. It’s the reason WHY I’m doing this work. This belief will hold me courageous and committed to the people, the content, and to the space I create. I try to create a stake for every day, every event and every interaction to ground me. When I forget to do it, I can tell right away why I’m blown off course by the winds.

#2 Step into what arises, whatever it is: In my work we talk so often about “naming the elephant” when you can feel the unsaid things stomping around the room that need to come out. Notice the energy in the space between people — what does it feel like? Is it crunchy or smooth? Is tension building or easing? Did the tone or emotion in the room suddenly change? Did you say something and trigger something for someone else? Watch for and be aware of everything that is happening, far beyond what gets said or how people move their bodies. It takes courage to step in when you don’t know or can’t name what is there. Centre yourself, and move forward to whatever arises, knowing you are in service to the group.

#3 Recognize that the space inside of you is as important as the space around you: You need to be clear, open and committed in order to lead from nothing and hold the space for others. That means doing your own work in terms of self-awareness, peacefulness and openness. Whatever it takes to manifest that for yourself, it will need to be a regular practice in order to build the muscles that support you in this work. For me this includes exercise, meditation, journalling and time in nature. The clearer and more open I am, the more able I am to serve. In addition, I’m learning that this practice also helps me recover faster and more fully when I’m thrown off balance by challenges, difficulties or my own reactions to situations.

#4 Open up your senses: Deep awareness of what is in the space is required. Listen with your ears and your heart, see with your eyes and your intuition, feel with your skin and your emotional radar, taste with your imagination and your phsyical reaction to the space. It’s easy to become caught up in the content, issues, details and forget what is most important. It’s easy to get caught up in your own head wondering if you are credible enough, knowledgeable enough or thinking about the next thing you need to accomplish. I’ve taken to spending time in nature listening to the wind blow in the trees, watching the spaces between the leaves, watching the feeling the air move beneath the wings of the birds. Sounds like a lot of “woooohoooo” doesn’t it? What I do know is that doing this has strengthened my awareness and ability to read what is there AND what is coming. It’s helped me serve my team, clients and participants because I am fully aware of and connected to what is in the space around the issues or content we are discussing. Our conversations are richer, more nuanced and results are improving. So go spend an hour staring at some blades of grass and see what changes!

Photo source: outtv.ca

Photo source: outtv.ca

#5 Connect, connect, connect:Leading from nothing and holding the space means a constant checking in with what is happening for the people and in the space to see what is emerging. You can’t check in once at the beginning, or a few times if things get challenging, and think you’re really holding space. It’s more like turning on the lights and leaving them on in the background as you go about your activities. Because the lights are on you can see things you need to see while you’re facilitating the conversation or leading the session or whatver you are doing. If you don’t keep the lights on, things get dim and you only see what is right in front of you. It’s takes a lot of energy to always have the lights on, but the outcomes are brighter, clearer and everyone can see the way forward when you exercise this skill.

#6 Seek awareness of how your leadership impacts the space in intended and unintended ways: You’ve got a stake to ground you, you are centered and open, you are practising awareness and checking in to connect with what is going on, so everything will go well, right? Yes and also no. There is no certainty in how things will go because you are dealing with real, live energy that comes from people, situation and place. You may impact the space in the way you intend. And you may also have unintended impacts — like people tune out, turn off or react negatively. Enhancing your ability to read these impacts, to step into them as they emerge and to seek feedback on what has happened will serve you and others. For example, when I get frustrated that people can’t see what I can see and I try to tell them how to move forward, I lose them instead of making the way clearer. They tune out or react to me being frustrated. That’s an unintended impact, because I’m in service to helping them find the way forward on the issues they are dealing with. However, once I follow the frustration urge and step into that, I’m no longer serving others, instead I’m serving myself, and then I’m thrown off my stake. But if I can say to the group, “I’m feeling frustrated here and I know that means I’m acting forcefully. That’s not my intention. I’m anxious for you to find the right way forward for YOU, rather than follow MY way forward. Lets begin again. What do we need to do to regroup?” then I’ve noticed and named my unintended impact. Every day we have intended impacts, and unintended impacts. The key is in building your awareness, stepping in and beginning again in service to the group.

There is no easy, straight forward path to holding space.

It takes effort, energy and practise to flex your leadership muscles to lead from nothing and hold the space in service of others. We will succeed, and we will also fail and get up and do it again. We are all capable of it. It just takes a commitment to something other than yourself, to creating a positive impact on your world.

Where are you holding space? What are you committed to beyond yourself? What do you want to create in the world?

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What happens when you act from a place of 100%?

Photo credit: clipartkid.com

Photo credit: clipartkid.com

We live in a world where we value the 50/50 equation as a path to partnership, career, relationship and life. We look at it as a way to equally divide and share the experience, benefits, challenges and investment of an undertaking. When we equally divide, we split the good, the bad, the favourable and unfavourable. We also divide the effort, energy and resources needed by each of us to make something real — we’re each only responsible for half of what gets created, and need only to give half of our effort, creativity and care.

By focusing on 50/50 the result we create is half as powerful, creative and impactful as it could be. If I only bring half of myself and my passion, and you do the same e are divided, two halves of a whole, each of us incomplete in our efforts and commitment.

What if instead we each approached life, partnership, work, relationship with 100% energy, effort and care? What would result? What would it look like for two wholes to come together with energy and effort, committed to an action and impact?

It seems like a simple shift of perspective to move from 50/50 to 100/100 and yet it is profound in its impact and results. When you look at the world from a place of wholeness, and you call forth that wholeness in others, the difference is significant.

I’m in the Coaches Training Institute 10 month Leadership Program, and we’ve been exploring the concepts and ways of being that result in powerful, impactful leadership in the world. One of those concepts is 100/100.

I’ve been experimenting with putting this into action in my life in multiple ways.

In my work: I’ve been practising discipline and focus on what I choose to do, what I say yes to and what I say no to, so that when I’m at “hell, yes” I’m all in. It’s been challenging to be more disciplined instead of chasing after every shiny new idea however I’m starting to see results in terms of productivity and creativity. What I’m creating and designing is more powerful than what I was creating before. I’m not “phoning it in” on anything. I’m showing up in the training and facilitation room as fully present, with 100% passion, energy and my whole, authentic self. Participants and students are responding — more interested, engaged, and invested. As I work in the 100/100 space more and more I’m opening up to more abundance and possibility. It’s like the more I give it my all, the more the universe throws things my way because my energy and effort is already there to catch what comes along.

In my relationships: I’m thinking about each of the important relationships in my life, and leaning in to them more and more by being present, invested, and asking for what I need while generously giving of my whole self. I’m deeply grateful to have strong and supportive life partner, family relationships and friendships and yet I see that when I show up as 100% and ask the same of them there is more passion, energy and sheer joy in the interaction. We aren’t just together because we are in the same space, we’re together because we “see” each other and we value and connect with intimacy.

What I’m learning about 100/100 along the way is still evolving.

  • You can’t do it unless you practice self care, and are able to be grounded and centered yourself. I’m meditating and journalling more, I’m taking time for myself to think, breathe and just be. I’m listening to my body and my mind. When I’m whole for me, I can be whole for others too.
  • When I’m thrown off balance I need to recover so I can be all in. I’m recovering faster than I did before and I’ve got more clarity on what grounds me and holds me in courageous space, so that I can recover. My goal isn’t to be 100/100 all the time, every moment. My goal is to live my life from that place, knowing there will be crappy days where bad things happen AND I can pull back and recover and keep going.
  • I can’t be 100/100 on everything all at once. I need to pick my priorities and focus on those. I’m saying no more often and practising more discipline. I’m going for quality over quantity, richness and depth over shiny and sparkly.
  • I’m asking for support more, and trying harder to articulate what I need from others so they can bring it. Or not. Because its OK if they can’t bring it all the time, and I won’t know if its there for me unless I ask. I’m seeking collaboration more from new and different partners as well as those I’m already connected to. I’m craving the energy of 100/100 that comes when you fully create with others.
  • I’m becoming more self aware, allowing myself to be seen and be fully vulnerable. It’s ironic that the more vulnerable I am, the more courageous I am, and the easier it is to access my capacity to bring 100/100 to my focus.

Try it out yourself and see what emerges for you when you are all in, when you hold yourself as whole and complete and invest in others, ideas and possibilities with 100%.

Try calling forth 100% in your partners and see how they show up, and what they bring to the opportunity.

Photo credit: quotefancy.com

Photo credit: quotefancy.com

Living from a place of 100/100 is powerful, transformative, and impactful personally and on the people around you, and on the community and organizations you interact with. It shifts perspectives, possibilities and the potential impacts.

Imagine if each of us involved in communities and government worked from a place of 100/100 to solve the problems and challenges that are facing us? Climate change, poverty, health care, inequality and more…if we focused 100/100 on the world we live in we’d be far further ahead than what we are presently creating with half the effort, investment and energy.

What kind of life and world do you want to create? It’s there for you, if you come from a place of 100/100.

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How NOT to create consensus. And how to learn from the experience and try again.

Photo credit: dailyquotes.co

Photo credit: dailyquotes.co

In the 2015 election campaign, the Liberal party of Canada led by Justin Trudeau, campaigned on a promise of electoral reform. He promised that 2015 would be the last election that used the first-past-the-post system.

After the Liberals won the 2015 election and took office, Prime Minister Trudeau said, “I believe that fundamentally we can do better. We can have an electoral system that does a better job of reflecting the concerns, the voices of Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and gives us a better level of governance.”

The government launched a public consultation process that included:

  • a special Parliamentary committee that conducted hearings and travelled the country (I couldn’t determine how many hearings were held or who participated).
  • the Minister embarked on a national tour.
  • MP’s hosted dozens of public forums / town hall meetings (I couldn’t determine how many public forums were held or who participated).
  • postcards were mailed to 14 million households to promote an online survey.
  • The online survey asked a series of questions and asked participants to rate their views about various issues related to governance, leadership and the electoral process by comparing choices against each other. After completing the survey, pariticpants were informed what their individual governance style is. Mine turns out to be “innovative”, although I’m not sure what relevance that has on this complex conversation.

It wasn’t clear what specific question the government was asking Canadians, or what commitment they were making to change the electoral system, beyond the promise that “change is needed”. Little information was available to the public about this complex topic, although Macleans magazine did a great job of outlining the key options, explaining each one, and even preparing infographics that outline the key elements of each option.

When the consultation was over the government identified three obstacles to moving forward. They included:

  • The lack of “consensus” on the issue.
  • That moving to a system of proportional representation could have made it easier for “extremist” parties to win seats in the House of Commons (with information from CBC Canada).
  • That a referendum would be divisive for the country.

The government said this, “A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged. Furthermore, without a clear preference or a clear question, a referendum would not be in Canada’s interest.” The Prime Minister added that, “There is no clear path forward. It would be irresponsible for us to do something that harms Canada’s stability. I’m not going to do something that is wrong for Canadians just to tick off a box on an electoral platform.”

On February 11, 2017 protesters staged demonstrations across Canada to express their concern about the Liberal’s decision to abandon electoral reform. At the time of writing 130,000 Canadians had signed a petition calling on the government to reverse their decision and to implement electoral reform. Fair Vote Canada also created an online petition with resources and materials to provide information about electoral reform.

Here is the thing: you get what you ask for. If you want consensus you need to ask the questions that get you to common ground. You need a process designed to create alignment and a path forward from a diversity of views and values.

There is a different way, that gets a different result. It requires a different approach. Imagine a world where conversations, like one about electoral reform, are held regularly and people talk together with courage, compassion and curiosity to find a way forward.

Photo credit: onecommunityglobal.org

Photo credit: onecommunityglobal.org

What is consensus?

Consensus is one of the most overused words in public engagement, and frequently misunderstood. Consensus results in group solidarity of sentiment and belief for a path forward.

It takes a specially designed process to create consensus — it doesn’t just naturally emerge. It requires a process where people share their values and understand each other better, where multiple ideas, suggestions, and possibilities are weighed. A consensus process allows people to weigh the pros and cons of different ways forward, to offer solutions that address their own needs AND the needs of others. It co-creates a path forward that didn’t exist before people worked together to find the solutions for the challenges they face. Consensus results in people supporting the way forward, and supporting the solutions created by the group, even if they don’t love it, or if it isn’t their ideal solution.

Alignment versus agreement

So many public engagement processes focus on finding agreement; for example, here is solution A, can we get people convinced or persuaded to like it? When we design processes around agreement, we move directly to solutions and we create camps — people who agree, and people who disagree. And then polarization emerges and we start to characterize each other as “good” or “bad” or as “right” or “wrong”.

Instead, we can design our conversations around alignment and start with processes that allow participants to deeply understand values and WHY we each hope for the future we desire. Once we understand and see each other and our respective needs, experiences and hopes then we can start designing ideas and solutions for a way forward that addresses those respective values. In that way we create sustainable and durable solutions for the long-term; solutions that have the support and buy-in of participants.

Commitment and shared power

A conversation designed to achieve consensus requires a commitment to the time, energy and effort it takes to allow consensus to emerge. It also requires a levelling of power — if all the power is held by the host or proponent to veto or decide on the preferred outcome, then the stakes for creation and participation don’t exist for participants. A commitment to support the solution(s) that emerges from the consensus based conversation is needed by all parties. It can feel like a risk to make this commitment, but the results of well designed consensus processes speak for themselves in terms of long-term, durable agreements.

Information that serves the conversation

It seems obvious to say that balanced and objective information is needed in order for people to understand each other and the issues, and to be able to create new solutions.

Inclusion and Representation

The more diverse and different views brought into the conversation, the better. You can’t create durable solutions with a small group of like minded people. Or even a small group of diverse people. Why? Because the like minded people go quickly to agreement, and then get stuck there if alternate views and values are expressed by those outside the group. The small group of diverse people do the heavy lifting to find a solution that works, but the larger community or society that aren’t part of the hard work to build the solution generally tend to oppose or react negatively to what they weren’t part of creating.

The answer is in larger groups that are diverse in terms of interest and demographic AND inclusion of those with passion and interest in the issue.

Powerful Questions

Earlier I noted that you get what you ask for. That means the questions you ask need to result in answers that support the goal of the process. Are you seeking agreement? alignment? Are you looking to find a long-term durable solution for a complex issue based on the diverse values and needs of Canadians? Are you wanting comments and opinions on a preferred course of action? Your questions matter, and they connect directly to your results.

If you are seeking consensus on an issue like electoral reform, you start with asking fundamental Canadian values that need to serve as guiding principles for whatever gets created. When you’ve got those answers — things like fairness, transparency, representation etc. you move to the next conversation. Then you could ask what ideas or suggestions are out there for creating an electoral system that serves those values? Once all the ideas are on the table, move into weighing the benefits and challenges of different options. What are the consequences, costs and impacts of each option? Where are the options aligned with values, and where do adjustments need to be made? What do people suggest? As a third phase of conversation, move to prioritizing solutions. And a way forward emerges that is durable and sustainable for the long term.

The right methods

There are techniques designed for these kinds of participatory, values based conversations on complex issues. And there are techniques that don’t serve these kinds of conversation, that don’t create the space for conversations that result in consensus. Techniques that DON’T serve these conversations include public hearings, town halls and online surveys. You will note these were the techniques used in the public consultation for electoral reform.

Techniques like open space, world cafe, deliberative forums, workshops and more allow opportunities for consensus to emerge.

If you approach a complex issue in this different way your chances of success are high. You could be talking about consensus, common ground and a way forward at the end of the project. I’d love to see a conversation on electoral reform re-start in this way. Wouldn’t you?

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What connects us is greater than what pulls us apart

Hong Kong government officials participating in a session on how to meaningfully and effectively involve the public in decision-making.

Hong Kong government officials participating in a session on how to meaningfully and effectively involve the public in decision-making.

Recently I had the privilege of spending a few days working with Hong Kong government officials to improve how they interact with and involve the public on projects. I was asked to design and deliver a training program about public participation in environmental impact assessment. I did that. And I also had the opportunity to share the attitudes, behaviours and ways of being that make our relationships and communities stronger and more vibrant.

I’ve worked around the globe, most of the time in western democracies. Until now, I’ve never worked in Asia. Culturally and socially, this was an enormous opportunity for me to learn about the experiences, challenges and successes of others, and to share my experiences, lessons learned and best practices.

Here are some highlights:

  • All human beings want the same things in the end. Safety, a better life for their children, a clean environment, a home, to be treated with respect etc. It doesn’t matter your culture, geography or the system of governance you live under, some things are universal.
  • Doing good work you can be proud of, and making a contribution to the world matters to all of us. The effort, energy and time required to thoughtfully complete a task reflects a sense of personal accomplishment and credibility.
  • Finding a way through the maze of human reactions, responses and concerns is something we all want to accomplish. No one wants to be mired or sidelined by conflict, controversy or opposition. We all have a deep desire to be seen as credible, trustworthy and responsive, and we each want tools and ideas to address the anger or opposition we face when trying to make positive change in our organizations and communities.
  • The values of respect and consideration run deep. Those values enable people to come together to find common ground and alignment, and ultimately to make better long-term decisions that reflect the values of the communities and public they serve. Your geography and political system are only context for the motivation to respect and be respected, and to find common ground with others.
Co-creating opportunities for shared listening and learning.

Co-creating opportunities for shared listening and learning.

We all struggle with the tensions of addressing the concerns of the public, and the needs of our organizations.How do we find the middle ground? How do we balance divergent views?

  • Personally, we all strive to learn more, stretch our skills and knowledge, and be more open, caring and responsive.

It is in the attitudes and behaviours of how we show up that we make the biggest difference in this work and in the world. If you want to be seen as trustworthy, then you have to care, be committed and thoughtful.

These are ways of being that go far beyond your ability to share information or plan a project. In the end it is how you show up that matters.

I live in Canada, and this group of colleagues live in Hong Kong, and our geography, political environment, social norms, and culture are different. Our humanity, values, commitment and care about building stronger communities and improved long-term decisions are what connects us. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Hong Kong, and to continued learning, sharing and connection.

When fear rises up: fight, flight or freeze?

Wise words. Photo credit: livedogrow.com

Wise words. Photo credit: livedogrow.com

Our reaction and response to fear is variable. It can be influenced by the situation, the depth of our fear, and our state of mind. It can also be highly influenced by our desire to make a choice to overcome the fear itself.

Some fears have little impact on our lives. For example, if you were to overcome a fear of spiders, but never plan to spend time in the desert or jungle, making a choice to address that fear isn’t necessarily going to result in you living a bigger, fuller life. However, if you are afraid and deeply uncomfortable with conflict or anger, and you’ve chosen a career as a facilitator, mediator or public engagement strategist, making a choice to overcome your fear will be enormously impactful on the potential possibilities your future can hold.

If you have a fear of failure, or of people thinking less of you, and you have a dream of writing a book, giving speeches on a topic you are passionate about or starting a business, then that fear can hold you back and stop you from creating the future you dream of. That fear could rule your life, resulting in you making choices to live a smaller, less fulfilling life.

Life is short. Making choices to live small could mean you wake up one day full of regret, your life a little less fulfilled than you had hoped for.

It takes courage to face your fears. It takes even greater courage to make choices to live your life and step into your fears even though they make you want to freeze, run or hide. Stepping into your fears will unlock a bigger, fuller life of potential and possibility.

The year I turned 40 I made a list of things that scare me, intent on facing each of them. At the time, most of my fears were physical and I took them on one by one, focusing on getting through the experience so I could check it off a list. For example:

  • Heights: I climbed the Sydney Bridge in Australia
  • Scary things you can’t see in dark water: I spent 5 hours underground blackwater rafting in New Zealand
  • Caves: exploring lava tubes in Iceland

It’s 8 years later, and now I’m in the middle of the Coaches Training Institute(CTI) Leadership Program, exploring all aspects of what it means to be a leader and make a positive impact and change in the world. Turns out that like most humans, I’ve got fears that need facing so I can make choices for positive change. Of course, the brilliant minds at CTI knew that when they designed the leadership program.

I’ve got two really big fears: heights (or more accurately a fear of falling) and a fear that in the end I’m not worthy or have value — that I’m not enough (for whatever I want to do or be). The act of even writing that out creates a pit in my stomach. In January at a CTI Leadership Retreat, I faced both fears at once.

My amazing partner  Carmen Ekdahl  and I on the high wire, teaching a workshop to the folks on the ground.

My amazing partner Carmen Ekdahl and I on the high wire, teaching a workshop to the folks on the ground.

To be clear about what this experience was and wasn’t; I was pretty sure I was going to vomit and pass out the whole time. My mouth was dry, my heart was racing, my knees were shaking. I could barely think, or even move.

As you can see, we fell. It was inevitable. AND we got back up and tried agin.

As you can see, we fell. It was inevitable. AND we got back up and tried agin.

It was a really tough experience. AND I survived it. AND I learned from it. AND I am so much richer as a result.

We can even smile about the experience — after its over.

We can even smile about the experience — after its over.

Facing my fears created an opportunity for learning that I’m still reflecting on. I’m learning that facing your fears requires more than trying something scary and checking it off a list.

For long-term impact and a fuller life, facing fears requires a different way of thinking, making choices and moving forward for the long-term.

It requires:

Authenticity: Where are you now? Where do you want to be? What is holding you back? What do you need to let go of so you can step into possibility? What values do you hold? How do you want to be in the world? What impact do you want to have? Knowing the answers to these questions grounds you, gives you purpose and will allow you to access strength and resilience as you face your fears.

Ask yourself — What are you committed to MORE than your fear? (All credit to the amazing Rick Tamlyn for this powerful question).

Vulnerability: The original definition of the word courage means “from the heart”. You will need to be truly open, courageous and willing to be seen in all your beautiful mess if you want to face your fears. You won’t be able to hide or run if you want to make the positive change that comes as a result of facing your fears.

Leaning in: I think facing your fears isn’t a thing you do halfway, or 50/50. It’s all or nothing — the same with the result. Put all your effort, energy and heart into facing them. Lean into your support network or your partner, ask for help and give support in return.

Staying power: I recognize that when my fears rise up my mind will do just about anything so I can avoid the discomfort that is created. That includes excuses, avoidance and rationalization. Be aware and watch for these patterns to rise up. Practice mindfulness and keep breathing! Its important to note that facing a fear once isn’t going to change your life. Making the facing of your fears and the choice making that results a life long practice is what will change your life.

Positivity: Choose a perspective that serves you as you face your fears. Think positive thoughts like This will be over soon, I will sleep in my bed tonight, I haven’t fallen yet, Look at what you are doing that you never thought you could do, and on and on.

Seek and learn: Redefine failure for yourself. Failure isn’t trying something new and not being successful. Instead, success is trying new and different things, and then trying again. And again. Define for yourself that success is in the taking of action and the exploration. Practice curiosity — what can you learn from this? How are you changed as a result? What has opened up for you? Where to from here?

I’m making different choices in my life each day as I step into fear as a life practice. I’m reaching for a bigger future full of more possibility and potential. I’m trying new things, and then trying them again. In service of that, I’m in Joshua Tree National Park this week with my family on vacation. I’ve been hiking, scrambling up hundreds of feet of rock scrambles, stepping over deep cracks, and rock climbing. I’m not great at it, and I’ll never make a career as a climber. And yet every day and every step, I’m a little more alive, and a little more positive because of my choices.

Facing my fear of heights to scramble up a 450 feet high rock pile in Joshua Tree leaves me feeling grateful for the whole world.

Facing my fear of heights to scramble up a 450 feet high rock pile in Joshua Tree leaves me feeling grateful for the whole world.

If YOU want to learn how to make different choices in your life and face your fears, Carmen and I are creating an online course, available soon!


Building a wall will NOT keep us safe: how public engagement and democracy are failing

Photo Credit: AP / Gregory Bull

Photo Credit: AP / Gregory Bull

We should be afraid, very afraid. The world is a very scary and dangerous place. We need safety — from each other, from “others”, in our communities. There are bad people out there and they are coming for you.

The media tells us this every day. Over and over again, on replay.

We experience it in social media ourselves, when some of our “friends” and “followers” belittle, bully, intimidate or threaten us or others. Peaceful events are taken over, men and women are shot or killed in the street because of the colour of their skin, their nationality or religion or the uniform they wear, we hold meetings so we can yell our anger, fear, hurt and frustration at each other — all in the name of freedom of speech and democracy.

Democracy is based on the foundation that people have a right to have a say about issues that matter to them. This is a fundamental principle underlying democracies around the globe. And taken to extremes, without a sense of responsibility or accountability, it is amplifying the worst in humanity.

For example, this week actor Leslie Jones closed her twitter account because of hate, misogyny, racism, harrassment and abuse from other users.

Photo credit: Daily Mirror, UK

Photo credit: Daily Mirror, UK

This is a common story, and a growing phenomenon in social media — where digital tools were created to amplify our individual voices, equalize power, connect us to each other, and rapidly engage on important issues. These have all been really positive developments in society, and have changed the way we interact, engage and raise our voices.

Unfortunately, many of these tools are now routinely used to promote hate, fear and blame and to exclude, marginalize or bully. There is no sense of responsibility, accountability or consequences for individual users who take these actions or by companies like Twitter, who have a conflict of interest — with a goal of increasing users there is little incentive to police the actions of its users or reduce their numbers.

In 2013 I wrote a blog about mob mentality and group think, and the harm it was causing to our democratic processes. I cited a number of projects and situations (including some of my own experiences), and described the phenomenon in detail. In the last 3 years the challenges have only gotten bigger and more extreme — and we seem to be heading to more desolate destinations in our engagement processes moving into the future.

The last few days I’ve taken some deep breaths and decided to watch segments of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. I’ve tried hard to suspend my judgment, get out of my own head — about how I’m good, right and on the side of the future we need, and the idea that what I’m seeing is crazy, bad and downright scary. As you can see from that sentence, its taken some real work to set that belief aside.

Photo credit: salon.com

Photo credit: salon.com

I looked at the sea of caucasian faces, more male than female. I listened to the cries of “Make America Great Again” and “Make America Safe Again” and the litany of woes about how the last 8 years have destroyed and forever damaged the “greatest nation on earth” beyond repair. I also heard fear, anger, hope, anxiety, frustration — and the deep wish for things to change. I heard speakers I have previously ridiculed say things like “Vote your conscience. Vote your conscious for candidates up and down the ticket...”

And of course, the wall. That the wall should be built. To protect people and keep them safe.

The truth is that I’m NOT on the side of angels, and Trump and his supporters are NOT bad people.

They are afraid. Afraid of their future hopes falling short, of their lives not living up to their expectations, of the gap they see widening between the life they think others are living, and the life they want to live — and they need somewhere to focus that fear, frustration and anger. They believe in democracy as they define it — where they have a right to a voice, and are entitled to use that voice as they see fit.

They need to believe someone sees them and is fighting for them. And in order to believe in the possibility of the future they hope for, they need to marginalize, blame, sideline and limit anyone who thinks differently. Because that is threatening. Kind of like my line of thinking when I sat down to watch the convention, just that I’m on the other side of the spectrum. I’m “left”, the Republicans are “right” — and we all justify how wrong the other side is by ridiculing, sidelining, belittling and de-humanizing each other. (On a personal note I’m pretty far left in my political leanings, so far left that my dear departed grandfather — a good ole Texas Republican himself — used to call me a “pinko”).

Even when we hold public engagement processes to talk about really important issues we seem to fail each other. There have been a plethora of town hall meetings held in the last few years, often planned and hosted by elected officials, to deal with serious, important and complex issues where emotions run high.

Photo credit: thestand.org

Photo credit: thestand.org


I can’t believe I need to write that. Isn’t it obvious?

Anyone who has ever planned a public engagement process on a really important and potentially emotional issue knows that.

Except for the people who keep planning them (usually for politicians) over and over again.

They are NOT the right process for complex, controversial and emotional conversations. They pit people against each, build emotional contagion, create a forum for venting high emotion and don’t generate ideas, solutions, or allow people to learn from or understand each other better. Earlier this year I wrote a top 10 list for public engagement techniques for complex, controversial and emotional topics — and the town hall, public meeting and advisory committee are NOT on the list.

When we come together in this environment we generate fear, blame, shame, anger and a sense of the “other” — instead of coming together closer.

For examples of what can go wrong when you hold a Town Hall Meeting on an issue that needs some really deep, heartfelt deliberation, listening, understanding and collaborative problem solving, and instead gets line-ups of people at microphones and no solutions in sight, check out these missed opportunities:

I could keep this list going on for pages and pages.

Here is what all these town hall meetings have in common:

  • they are complex, important issues that affect the society we live in — systemic racism; climate change; the viability of rural communities and the livelihood of farmers, violence and safety in our communities, religious freedom, discrimination and the right to practice faith;
  • there are multiple, varied viewpoints on each issue, and each of these perspectives come with different values, needs and experience;
  • there is a lot of emotion that needs to be acknowledged, addressed and really understood on the issues at play. People are hurt, fearful, have been harmed, are anxious, worried and frustrated.
  • solutions are needed to these issues — long-term sustainable solutions that require thoughtful conversations, idea generation and deep consideration. And generating those solutions will require informed participation about the issue.

These forms of public engagement do NOT get us these solutions or understanding. They generate anger, hurt, blame, shame, frustration — and a venting of the right to have a say. They get us venting, defensiveness, emotions boiling over — and no forward momentum in sight.

We need to re-think this. Public Engagement and our present form of “I have a RIGHT to have a say” democracy needs to be adjusted.

Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

How about public engagement and democracy where we have both a RIGHT AND A RESPONSIBILITY for the quality of the world we create?

We each have a RIGHT to have a say. AND we each have a RESPONSIBILITY to participate in our democratic processes with respect, accountability and care for our fellow community members.That means we don’t just vent our anger, hurt and frustration. We also try to understand the experiences and perspectives of others. We need to dig deep and try to find solutions to the challenges we face that go beyond blame, shame and humiliation. And if we have been harmed and hurt along the way, we are no further ahead if we harm and hurt others in the name of our cause. We don’t make our situations better, help anyone else, or even feel better ourselves when all we do is come together and yell at each other.

We can’t solve the problems that face us if we are yelling at each other.Politicians and leaders in organizations please consult a public engagement practitioner who has worked in high emotion situations before planning your next public engagement session. They will tell you NOT to hold a town hall, and how to create a respectful space for EVERYONE to be heard, with the potential to create solutions to the problems that face us. And we need solutions to the problems that face us in our world. Racism, climate change, our democratic systems — these are big issues we need to tackle together. And we can’t solve problems if we are yelling at each other.

Fear begets fear. Hate begets hate. Anger, shame and blame beget more of the same. Building a wall doesn’t keep us safe — because the fear is inside us. If you want something different in this world, if you want conversations where we hear each other, where we figure this out, this is not about the “other side” acting properly and stopping their bullying and intimidation. Start at home, in your own heart. This is about YOU stopping your judgement, your righteous belief that you are right and they are wrong, that you have the answers and those other people are bad people. Because if we keep going this way, we’re only going to get more hate, fear, anger, blame and shame.

We need to do better. Ask more of each other. Rise to the challenges of our times and practice HOPE instead of hate. Hold ourselves accountable for the processes we plan, host and participate in. Right now we’ve got the democracy we created. We built this. Let’s create something different instead.

What is a leader?

Photo credit: changeyourresults.com

Photo credit: changeyourresults.com

The news is full of stories of leaders; thoughtful, capable, accountable, inspiring leaders, and divisive, authoritative, polarizing leaders. Leaders succeeding, leaders failing, leaders being toppled. When we talk about leadership, it seems we each have different ideas and images that come to mind about what constitutes a leader, and what makes a good or great leader.

In a recent workshop I facilitated with a group of senior leaders, I asked “what is a leader?” I heard things like:

  • Humble
  • Inspiring
  • Accountable
  • Authentic
  • Open
  • Courageous
  • Empathetic
  • Supportive
  • Ethical
What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

Those descriptions sound like the attributes of an amazing human being — one who is aligned with their values, supports others to be great, and who can create a better future for all. A person who brings out the best in others by consistently being their own best self, and who acts with an open heart in service to a greater purpose.

I’m not sure all the “leaders” in the news meet the description. Traditionally, we have granted the title of “leader” to those who hold a position of authority or power. Again and again it seems that role doesn’t necessarily equate to the qualities of an inspiring human being.

What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

The Center for Creative Leadership recently completed a white paper assessing the Character Strengths of Leaders, which identified 4 core strengths: Integrity, Social Intelligence, Bravery and Perspective.

While the study focused on organizational leaders, the attributes of top level leaders could be applied to politics, community, and other situations where leadership is called upon. Of note, the study indicated a tension — the focus on performance of mid level managers often means less emphasis on integrity. And yet where do we draw our top level leaders from if not from the mid management pool? And then we seem surprised when behaviours and actions taken by top leaders lack integrity.

The OECD regularly reports on Trust in Government. Recent research shows that only 40% of citizens trust their government — and trust is the cornerstone of robust economies, effective policies and programmes, and vibrant societies built on cooperation and social acceptance and capital. OECD sees key actions that are required to win back the trust of citizens, asserting that: “we must address “big trust”, the ability of government to reassure citizens that it is taking care of the things that are beyond the control of individuals, though in a fully accountable, transparent, fashion. Government has to demonstrate that it can “govern for the future” and “govern for the unexpected”. Third, we need to build fairness in policymaking. This has at least two dimensions: first, prevent undue influence in policymaking by addressing the challenges posed by political financing and lobbying, and second, make policymaking and implementation processes more inclusive through information, and consultation with the public.”

The OECD identified 6 areas for government to win back trust: Reliability, Responsiveness, Openness, Better Regulation, Integrity & Fairness, Inclusive Policy Making.

The Edelman 2016 Trust Barometer, noted a mounting trust inequality, where trust is rising in those who make up the “informed public” but decreasing in the mass population / general pulic. This rise of trust inequality, means a shift of influence to the general public — across the globe.

There was a federal election in Canada in November 2015, which resulted in a change of Prime Minister and the political party in power to the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. EKOS Politics has been tracking the impact of this swing election on public perception. Confidence in the direction of the federal government and the country are at historic highs, across demographics, and show no signs of waning. Confidence in Justin Trudeau as a leader is extremely high. For 20 years, EKOS has been asking Canadians what type of vision they prefer for Canada’s future — stay the course or a bold new vision. Canadians consistently prefer a bold, new vision — but haven’t historically gotten it. However, since the election, EKOS reports that, “For the first time ever, we now see a consonance between what the public want and what they feel they are getting. By a margin of 63–37, Canadians see the federal government as headed in a bold new direction, as opposed to maintaining the status quo.

Last week, the CBC published an analysis of Prime Minister Trudeau’s approach to leadership, as compared to that of Donald Trump, or David Cameron and the impact of the “Brexit” referendum. They quoted Trudeau’s speech at the World Economic Forum, where he stated, “Simply put, everybody needs to benefit from growth in order to sustain growth. I believe in positive, ambitious leadership. We need to trust citizens. We need societies that recognize diversity as a source of strength. Not a source of weakness.”

All of this brings me back around to my original inquiries:

What is leadership? Who is a leader? Why does it matter? What impact does it have?

In that same workshop where I asked these questions about leadership, we also talked about engagement.

What is engagement? What does it accomplish? What impact does it create?

What is engagement? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

What is engagement? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

Engagement is about bringing people together, to speak with open hearts and minds about the things that matter most to them, so they can build a better future.

And leaders…what role do they play in engagement?

We are all leaders.

In reflecting on the research, and my own experience with leadership, great leaders reflect the best of all of us: they bring their best selves so others can be more, dig deeper, take brave actions, overcome and achieve a better future.

More than that, leaders inspire us, and allow us to see the possibilities that are out there. They don’t just dream that better future, they inspire us to take action every day to achieve it ourselves. They empower us. They model integrity, ethical behaviour, responsiveness and accountability. They are aligned with their values, and working towards a higher purpose.

If we are all leaders, and there are challenges with the systems and structures of our world, are we each not responsible in some way for those impacts and outcomes? If the shift in influence resides with the mass population and the general public, imagine what could happen if we each stood up — with integrity, fairness, compassion and courage — and created the world we want to live in?

Imagine if we each acted like the leaders we are and called forth the future we want. If we came together in honest, open dialogue about what we hope for (and not in conversation about what we DON’T want because that is the easy way out, and a path to being our lesser selves).

Who do you want to be? How do you bring your best self to that future? How do you live your life with integrity, courage and compassion and inspire others to do the same? What kind of leader are you?

Practicing empathy, where I was least expecting to need it

Photo credit: torontohhs.org

Photo credit: torontohhs.org

You know those sayings that make light of hard or challenging times, like “Look on the bright side”? Or “Every cloud has a silver lining?” I’ve recently been given the “privilege” of working hard to find that silver lining.

My partner in life and work, my best friend and dearest companion, recently suffered a life threatening injury. My entire focus was on him — what did he need, how was he feeling, how could I be supportive, what could we do as a family to support him in this journey, what could we do at work, how could we see this through so he was supported…the list went on.

I kept hearing Brene Brown say that sympathy is “me over here in my own world where things are OK, looking down at you in that place over there where bad things have happened, saying it must suck to be you” while empathy is “Me here, with you, so you know you are not alone. I’m with you.” (Obviously, I’m summarizing, not quoting!) I wanted to be sure that he knew I was here for him, in his physical pain, and the emotional pain that goes along with it.

I thought through the 5 steps to practicing empathy, so I could be there for my partner:

  • 1-Perspective Taking
  • 2-Staying out of judgment
  • 3-Recognizing emotion
  • 4-Communicating emotion
  • 5-Mindfulness

Once he got through the initial crisis, and came home from the hospital, I thought we were on the road to recovery, and my spirits would lighten and while I’d still be empathetic and supportive, we could start on the path to recovery — phsyically and mentally. I thought I could shift from “danger, danger” to “where are we today” in my own mind. While the heightened adrenaline of the initial situation has decreased, I find my self daily in this tightly wound, reactive place of fear, isolation and worry.

Almost 4 weeks from the injury, my partner is physically recovering. He is healing physically, and is starting to see what the road to full recovery will look like for his body. He is patient, thoughtful and working hard to accept the moments of boredom, worry and frustration he is experiencing. I’m so deeply grateful that he is healing that it brings tears to my eyes every time I think of it.

I’m now realizing that this situation has given me an opportunity to learn an important lesson — one I seem to need to keep re-learning over my life!

In order to care for others, you need to care for yourself.

In order to be there for my partner, our family and our work, over the last 4 weeks I’ve been stretching and extending myself in all directions. And I’m tired, grouchy, tearful and worried. I’ve got pain in my body, and a heart that aches and keeps re-picking the scab of worry from when he first got hurt.

This week I remembered that self compassion is as important as empathy.The work on self compassion by Kristen Neff has been a powerful reminder for me. (You can watch some of her videos on self-compassion here). The steps include:

  1. Notice Suffering — that one is easy. I’m so busy telling myself this is not about me, and asking what do others need, and how do I hold it together - that I’m a disaster. All right — I’ve done this one!
  2. Be Kind in Response to that Suffering. Here would be the source of my problems. Totally shitty at this. No time for the gym, time alone, time to rest, relax or care for myself. If I do take any time I parcel out in tiny bite size pieces, because I better get back to doing what I “should” be doing.
  3. Remember that imperfection is part of the human experience. This one is funny — I’m chuckling to myself. Imperfection is part of OTHER PEOPLE’s experience — I am going to be a really great wife, mother and team member and have my shit together for this whole ride.

So I’ve got the lesson. I’m re-learning it. Duh.

I went to the gym last night. I’m going out for a walk as soon as I finish writing this. I’m going to lighten up a little and find something funny to read. I might even do a craft or colour. I’m going to make some more jam, or some pickles. I’m going to bed early tonight.

I’m going to remember that I don’t need to get it all right, and to accept that this is where I am at today. And that if I’m kind and caring to myself, I’ll be better able to be kind and caring for others. And while my partner’s injury isn’t about me, it is OK that I too have suffered through it. And to be deeply, deeply grateful that my partner is here with me, and whole, and on the road to recovery. And there is nothing I could be more grateful for in the world.

Ready to Engage? Probably NOT.

Photo credit: National Post

Photo credit: National Post

Over the last week I have been watching a situation unfold and rapidly escalate in the City of Calgary. I think there are some big questions that should be asked about the nature of public engagement, and the ways in which citizens and government intersect.

In short form, it goes like this:

  • The City of Calgary did public consultation in 2010 on long range transportation visioning and planning. Then they announced a plan for a $40 million South West Transit Way project. The project includes Bus Rapid Transit with dedicated bus lanes and buses running every 10 minutes during peak periods, lots of stations, and basically lots and lots of construction over a very large area. They held a couple of information sessions in the summer and fall of 2015 to let institutional and community stakeholders know the project was coming. You can read the fact sheet about the project here.
  • Some citizens were supportive, excited and happy with the project. And some are probably neutral. I say this because I know that is always the case from my past experience in countless public engagement projects. It is never true that “everyone” is opposed to a project or a process, even if it feels like that in the media or online.
  • Some citizens are really concerned — and from a quick review of the issues it seems the biggest concerns relate to lack of information, lack of respectful and meaningful engagement process, lack of understanding about why, how and what is being implemented, and concerns about impacts and costs.

It had been building for a while, but things really blew up last week.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia, nuclear explosion

Photo Credit: Wikipedia, nuclear explosion

Last week at an open house for the project (reportedly one in which thousands attended), things got out of control.

Councillor Pincott (a local Alderman) stated that a small group of citizens “acted like classic bullies and prevented their fellow citizens and Calgarians from engaging on the issue.”

Mayor Nenshi stated that there was “yelling, swearing, pushing, shoving, physical assault and even a death threat” at the open house.

Emma Stevens, a Communications staff person at the City of Calgary went public in a Facebook Post and stated “I spend many of my nights at public engagement events. Lots of citizens have great ideas that help us improve our projects, and I’m thrilled that I can be a conduit for those voices. But not all citizens demonstrate the respect that my colleagues and I deserve, not just as City staff trying to do a job, but as human beings. I have been berated, demeaned, physically assaulted and disrespected by complete strangers on too many occasions.”

As a result, Mayor Nenshi cancelled all future face to face public engagement on the project, because of the “history of bad behaviour on this file.” He attributed the “bad behaviour” to a small group of organized citizens known as Ready to Engage. He referred the death threats and physical assault to the police.

Ready to Engage asked for an apology from the Mayor, noting that they do not condone or participate in what he accused them of. You can learn more about Ready to Engage here.

The Mayor refused to apologize, and reiterated the group was responsible for the cancellation of the public engagement process, further accusing them of spreading misinformation. More on that here.

As a public engagement practitioner with more than two decades working in high emotion, conflict, and controversy I am truly astonished to see things get to this point, with so many signs along the way that challenges were occuring. *See my note at the bottom of this blog about previous engagement work with the City of Calgary.

I believe there is an opportunity to learn and improve this existing situation and also the way citizens and government engage for the long haul.

Here is my first quick list of lessons to be learned, and I hope others add to it:

  • NO ONE should be treated in a way that subjects them to harm, intimidation, fear or threat. Ever. Seems ludicrous that it needs to be said out loud. And it applies all around — to citizens and City staff too.
  • You need some “rules of engagement” for public engagement, especially in situations of high emotion, controversy and conflict that are created WITH citizens, stakeholders and organizations (not delivered to them like a list of rules on how they should behave). These rules should be made public — online and face-to-face, and should be moderated, supported and encouraged by participants and proponents alike. That way everyone is clear on expectations, and can work hard to support each other in a respectful process. This creates a sense of reciprocal responsibility and promotes civil discourse. No one wants to be treated with disrespect, on any side, but there can be nuances and variation to people’s definitions of what is acceptable in a given situation. For example, one of my “rules” about what is not OK is defamation of character, libel or slander. Don’t say unproven, bad stuff about other people’s characters or intentions without proof. I would suggest in this case that includes suggesting that all members of the citizen’s group Ready to Engage are bullies intentionally intimidating other citizens and engaging in “bad behaviour” (with the implication that this includes shoving, physical assault and death threats). I wrote a blog recently about being really clear where the line is on behaviour that is acceptable, and where it is not, and how you need to balance generosity with boundaries. That blog still applies and can be found here.
  • If you aren’t prepared to take a little passion along with the supportive comments, you might need to rethink your compatability with your job. Let me clear, I’m not saying public engagement practitioners should be OK with being yelled at, abused or anything else like that. All employees have a right to respect and a safe work environment. I AM saying that public enagement involves people, in all their intensity, emotion and care. And when people feel strongly about something that really matters to them they can sometimes get a little heated. If you are OK only with positive, supportive comments or people providing input to “improve projects”, then you might not be right for public engagement. You might be better at communications or public relations. And that’s OK. Because public engagement means people tell you everything they think, and you don’t have to agree with it, like it or believe it yourself, but their voices — all of their voices — are your job.
  • We live in a democracy, and participatory processes are messy. Just because a decision has been made, doesn’t mean everyone agrees with it, and in a democracy people HAVE A RIGHT TO HAVE A SAY ABOUT ISSUES THAT IMPACT THEIR LIVES. That includes the right to say they want the project stopped, changed, or improved. In the end, we all have to live together in our communities, and we are far better served to believe the best of others when we come together to talk about issues that matter.
  • If you plan a public engagement process then YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ENGAGEMENT PROCESS. If things go badly (like this situation), the first question you should ask is how did public expectations and organizational expectations get so far apart? How was the process planned to support constructive, meaningful conversation — or not? Because I’m pretty sure it isn’t a surprise to the City that people were upset and concerned, and that this was building. I can think of 20 things off the top of my head that could have immediately been done to adjust, enhance and improve the engagement process for this project — just based on the media reports and website reviews. Just because you have a public engagement plan doesn’t mean you can’t change it. And if your job is public engagement, then you are responsible and accountable for the engagement process.
  • I can’t believe it needs to be said but OPEN HOUSES ARE NOT TECHNIQUES FOR SITUATIONS OF HIGH EMOTION. Enough said. Instead, they are probably generators of high emotion, especially when large groups of upset people converge together. Read Dialogue Partners Top 10 Techniques for High Emotion, Controversy and Complexity here. Open Houses, Town Halls, and Public Meetings AREN’T on that list.
  • We need to stop engaging people about the little things when what they want to talk about are the big things. Stop asking about station design, noise attenuation etc. when what they really want to talk about is route, necessity, cost etc. It feels disrespectful, condescending and irrelevant to people. My blog on the Myths of Public participation sums up this common but mistaken approach pretty well.
  • If you’ve got high emotion and outrage on a project, you need to address that before you address the substantive issues or things go BAD, FAST. When conflict is building any organization is best served to ask why, and to seek to understand what is triggering it and then to step into the conversation so that the concerns are clearly understood. If citizens are saying the engagement process has been disrespectful and lacking meaning, that might be a good thing to understand better before you keep driving the train forward (or the bus in this case). Creating that opportunity to understand more is a basic sign of respect, and that step can deal with a lot of the concerns that are raised.
  • Practice a little empathy and a lot of respect. Citizens have clearly taken enormous amounts of energy to participate in this process, whether they are for, against or neutral. That passion and energy is a gift. Be respectful of it. Seek to understand it. Be aware of the power of it.
  • The biggest barrier to dealing with the outrage of public and citizens is your own outrage at their outrage. Mayor Nenshi is outraged. Citizens are outraged. And things have escalated, and will continue to escalate. I anticipate law suits, court cases and increasing polarization, with ripple impacts on many other City engagement processes. Take a time out. Step back.
  • The more polarized the debate becomes the less likely things are to resolve, and everyone loses out. When people start characterizing each other with negative attention and talking about each other, rather than with each other things go from bad to worse. It’s best to stop demanding apologies, and responding via the media, and hold off until things are calmer.
  • We live in a blame and shame culture, and it gets the best of all of us sometimes. Sometimes the societal desire to place blame at the feet of someone, or to seek out a scape goat, cause or villain for evil doing is so appealing we don’t even see it happening. Look at U.S. politics right now for some examples, or situations where cyber bullying have led to horrific results. Or check out the twitter feed about this situation in Calgary. Consider resisting the urge to blame someone for what is happening and try to believe the best of others. Imagine if citizens believed elected officials and City staff had the collective interest of Calgarians at heart, and were working to build a better City? Imagine if City staff and elected officials believed citizens were engaging to make projects work better in their communities, from their knowledge of their lives and experiences?
  • Online engagement DOES NOT decrease high emotion, conflict or controversy. In fact it makes it worse, removes the requirement to look each other in the eye as humans, and removes the need to be accountable for the impact of our words, accusations and fears. If you think there were challenges with face to face engagement, I can only imagine what will happen when things go online.
  • Don’t be afraid to push the “STOP” button, call for a pause, or admit mistakes were made. All round. All sides. Things got way out of hand. Lines have been crossed. We are all human. Calling for a pause so you can figure out what is next is the best thing to do in a confict. They call it a truce, and it is usually a prelude to peace talks. Either way it lets tempers cool, allows the dust to settle, and at its best creates an opportunity to remember we are all in this together, and we want many of the same things for our communities.

I’ve got lots of other lessons swirling in my head for this list, but these are the most obvious ones. I’d love to hear your ideas, lessons and observations.

In the end, we are in this together. And when our organizations and citizens fail to interact and connect respectfully on issues that really matter, we all stumble. I’m rooting for everyone in this situation, and have high hopes things can improve. But the first step is to stop.


  • Here is my disclaimer and fine print. I’m a consultant in public engagement and work at Dialogue Partners. We’ve done work with the City of Calgary in the past, and have trained many of their staff over the years in public engagement. I have not worked on this project, and my knowledge of it comes from the media and online research. I’m hopeful this blog will be read by the City and citizens alike in the spirit it was intended — as a reflection on the practice of public engagement. But I’m realistic that it might not be. And that is life.