After many years working in the community engagement arena I realised that whilst I was fairly competent at engaging communities I had a lot to learn about engaging decision-makers, especially politicians.
We know that communities often react when they see through espoused consultation – you know when it is really a ‘rubber stamp’ exercise (ie, it looks like a plan has already been developed, or a development has already been approved). Likewise politicians don’t really like being told what to support either, especially when they have felt alienated or disengaged from the broader community engagement process. But at first I didn’t really quite know how to talk to them. I’m getting better at it – and here are some things I have learned.
Find out what matters to them about the project with which you are involved.
Politicians usually talk to a lot of people, and they know stuff. Finding out what matters to them and what they have learned is a way to build rapport with them. Most really do want to do a good job and make sound decisions. So listening to them, finding out what they know and what is important to them is a great way to gain some credibility.
Appreciate their drivers (not talking about chauffeurs here either!)
There are many and differing drivers and they are not the same. Politicians are not a homogenous group. For most, being seen to be ‘doing good’ is incredibly important for their career and survival. Reputation is everything.
Some are driven by the fear of something going wrong, whereas others are more motivated about doing something new and innovative. For some being seen as a ‘strong’ leader who is not afraid of upsetting people, is more important than being seen as ‘consultative’.
All politicians have constituents – people they need to keep faith with. Finding out who those people are is important to gain a sense of perceived non-negotiables.
Also politicians do have their favourite issues where they really want to make an impact. They have reasons and stories behind their passion. This will need to be recognised and accommodated in some way.
In short if you don’t know what really matters to politicians then it’s difficult, probably impossible, to engage them constructively.
Provide a safe place for the to talk and ask questions
If talking to a group of politicians, don’t expect many to ask questions. They don’t really like to look like they need more information in front of their peers. In such situations if a question is asked it is often a statement, or a challenge being thrown down.
Providing a place where you can chat one on one is a better way to go. It is safe for them to ask really basic questions that may help reassure them, or clarify concerns they have.
Help them to appreciate the complexity of the situation – becoming exposed to different perspectives.
Politicians are advised, and talked at, all the time. Sadly some are only exposed to people with similar points of view (their ‘mates’), which can lead them to believing that everyone thinks the same. Presenting the perspectives of others will be important so that they develop a more complete picture of the complexity involved.
Share stories – relevant ones that show the benefit of contemporary community engagement practices
Executives and politicians have lots and lots of material to read. It is overwhelming. But they are very good at sifting through that material and latching onto something they can use and act upon. One of the best things you can give such leaders is a fabulous story. Make it memorable. Preferaby something punchy with a surprising conclusion, and a take-away headline. This is definitely an art-form worth working at.
Check out some story telling resources here at Get Storied with my friend from the US, Michael Margolis.
Keep it simple – if you don’t keep it simple it shows that you don’t understand your pitch all that well (remember that quote from Einstein?)
This is actually hard to do if you have loads of information, years of training, and a multitude of thoughts/ideas running through your head. Practice talking with people who are reasonably smart but who know nothing. If they don’t understand it readily then chances are you have more work to do.
Appeal to the best part of them
I find that assuming that politicians and other influencers only want to do the right thing, is the best way to gain their trust. (I do actually think that is most often the case too – by the way). Inviting them to provide their support for a great process with noble aims just might help them to connect with the very best part of themselves, and to do that little bit extra to actively support a broader engagement process.
Ask them how much they would like to be involved and how best to keep them informed.
This goes for influencers just as much as other stakeholders/community groups. It also demonstrates respect. Enough said.
So apart from these insights, I have also gathered new insights by talking with a politician, who also happens to be a terrific planning and health promotion consultant, and academic, Micaela Drieberg. Together we have decided to join forces and offer practical workshops about influencing decision-makers. Here is some information about it if this is something you want to/need to seriously get better at it. We are both really looking forward to delivering this course together and learning from each other, and participants.
27th February, 2015