During one of my hostile community engagement projects, a man in his 70s raised his hand to backhand me across the face. Good sense stopped him. But it was terrifying.
His hand was shaking, his face was red, and he could no longer contain the rage that was consuming him.
I had been brought in after 12 months of my client saying nothing to the community. And in the absence of information, there was rage. So how do you get from enraged to engaged? It requires, and not necessarily always in this order:
- A willingness to admit past mistakes. This is the first step in moving forward.
- The ability to cop the anger. Sometimes people need to vent. Sometimes, like my man in his 70s, they have a right to feel angry. And as engagement professionals, we need to provide that space.
- Understanding what people are really upset about it. Are they really upset about traffic and dust, or are they really angry because of a past event. It could be as simple as a letter that your organization has sent. It could be that you’ve failed to deliver on promises. Or it could be you are talking about things that are important to you, like jobs, rather than the things that are important to them, like the legacy of their land for future generations.
- Time. People need time to get through the anger so they can sit down and talk.
- Getting to the masses. On a recent project, it was obvious that the community outrage was in fact outrage from a very small number of people, who were also enraging other members of the community. If you’re going to do community engagement properly, you have a responsibility to involve more than just the loudest voices.
- Deciding what you’re willing to negotiate on. Tell the public specifically what you want their input on. A telltale sign of poor engagement is to simply ask for feedback under the banner “have your say” without any indication of the negotiables and non-negotiables.
- And finally, a willingness to embrace anger. Accept that where there’s anger, there’s passion. And when there’s passion you can get interest and involvement.
For some of us, that might require a mental shift. But it’s a mental shift that means you won’t resent the man in his 70s. You’ll understand. You won’t get angry yourself. And you’ll be more likely to find a way forward.
Amanda Newbery is a licensed trainer for IAP2’s Emotion and Outrage in Public Participation Course.