5 Important Trends that are Changing Stakeholder Engagement and Expert Advice on How to Address Them
This blog is addressing five Important trends that are changing the engagement landscape. COVID-19 has not diminished these trends; however, it will add additional complexity in the coming months and years. As the changes surrounding COVID-19 are currently evolving, we’ll be continuing this vital conversation in the future.
5 New Stakeholder Engagement Trends and Best Practices with High Stakes, High Impact Engagement Consulting Expert, Kim Hyshka
Joining Jambo for this Q&A blog is Kim Hyshka, the owner of Dialogue Partners. Kim has been a leader in the field of civic engagement and public participation for over a decade (for Kim’s complete bio, visit the About Dialogue Partners page).
Dialogue Partners specializes in:
"High stakes, high impact projects. We open possibility, cultivate collaboration and spark change through dialogue. We involve the community, bringing people together to facilitate conversations that make an impact."
Kim is in the business of better conversations, meaning she supports organizations to interact, engage and make decisions regarding high stakes issues and topics.
She supports a broad list of projects and conversations, helping to bring people together to talk about what matters to them; to make decisions that support a variety of people and a variety of perspectives.
For today's blog, Kim has offered her expertise and helped us compile a list of current engagement trends in the industry and five best practices for richer engagement.
Q: Has Engagement Changed?
The world is a different place than it was ten years ago, and what previously worked in stakeholder engagement doesn’t work anymore.
There have been fundamental shifts in the ways people connect, in their expectations of organizations and government and in how people organize, perceive and interact with large and “powerful” organizations.
These shifts don’t necessarily mean that people are different at their core, but the way they come together has changed and this has an impact on how we define, understand and implement public engagement.
Today, we’ll talk about five trends that are changing the engagement environment.
Q: What 5 Trends are We Seeing in Engagement?
Trend #1: Increased Polarity and Divisiveness
When it comes to engagement, there's a lot of "yes!" and "no!" and this divisiveness can be a challenge, especially as it’s often amplified in larger groups.
As practitioners, we must work to support people to come together, whether it's online or face-to-face, to help people talk with one another instead of talking at one another, which is something we especially see online.
We need to help people have conversations where they're actively listening and engaging with each other to help them work through this divisive tendency—to do this, we need to build trust.
Trust plays a significant role in this polarity and divisiveness. Today, trust in large organizations or governments is low (see Edelman’s Trust Barometer).
The research suggests that trust in traditional, formal organizations and institutions has been in decline in western society and that we don’t believe that organizations are making the best decisions for us.
I see this as one of the big challenges of our time. Organizations like municipalities, provincial governments or other businesses or corporations are in service to the public or are delivering on the needs of the public, but if stakeholders immediately aren’t trusting decisions or choices, it becomes significantly more challenging to deliver on projects effectively.
As engagement practitioners, we should assume that people don't trust us while also understanding that trust is essential for good decision making. Trust is critical to engagement being meaningful over the long-term.
We need to remember that trust is a two-way street. If we want people to trust us, we need to trust that the people we are talking with have something valuable to say.
To build this trust and address the divisiveness, we need to think not only about the data that we need from people but also about the experiences we're creating with them when we engage.
What Experience Are You Creating for People?
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
– Maya Angelou
Trust isn't built based on "how good your questions were," it's about the experience you create for people; this will define whether people trust you, how willing they are to work with you and what kind of long-term relationship you have with them.
How do we Build a Positive Stakeholder Experience?
You need to consider three components to plan an impactful experience.
Can people understand what you're saying? For example, if they're feeling confused (e.g. from a lot of technical jargon), they're likely walking away frustrated.
What are people smelling? What can they touch? How comfortable are they? Is there something to eat/drink? (it’s the small details that will make a difference).
What kind of rapport are you building? How effective were you at addressing differences in opinion and finding alignment between those differences in a respectful manner? Were you listening to people's concerns or just focusing on sharing your information?
Trend #2: The Impact of Instant Gratification
We're used to services and technology where we get what we want, almost immediately. We can reach out, connect and respond on social media within minutes. This trend of instant gratification has become the norm and is something we’ve come to expect.
The Dark Side of Instant Gratification
When conversations are hard and don't go the way people expect (or as quickly as they expect), it's easy to fall back into that "yes!” and “no!" divisiveness we mentioned above. This polarity impacts our ability to engage in deeper and richer ways.
What impact does this have on engagement?
Stakeholder engagement can take a long time (many projects often take years), and this can be frustrating for people we're engaging with who often think, "We just talked, and they haven’t reached out to us, what’s taking so long?"
We expect results right away, and we have trained our brains to want to engage in this manner. Unfortunately, this directly contributes to the reactivity and high emotion we see in engagement. We come to quick conclusions without taking enough time to consider, reflect or digest the information before we react.
This takes away from meaningful dialogue and instead becomes a conversation guided by our judgments, assumptions and personal perceptions.
It’s important to remember that with quick and closed interactions, we aren’t going to fully understand how to densify our cities or properly identify where to place our schools or determine how to move people from place to place better.
Today, as engagement practitioners, we have a role to play in supporting people to experience a different kind of conversation to help create positive changes.
Trend #3: We’re Relying too Heavily on Facts to Solve Our Problems
We want facts to solve our problems.
We often approach situations where we're trying to convince people, and we think, "if people just knew the facts surrounding a situation, they would support our position, or they would understand, or they’d stop opposing the project." So, we show up to meetings with slideshows, poster boards, cue cards and experts, but the reality is, facts rarely make people feel better.
Facts matter and they are a critical part of engagement. People need certain data and information to be informed about situations; however, what we need to remember is that stakeholders are experts in their own lives. They do not need to be technical experts to tell you how they're going to be affected by your projects.
By focusing so heavily on facts, we’re not connecting the dots to build the full picture. We’re missing the opportunity to have a conversation where we say, "here's what we know, now tell us what we don't know."
Our stakeholders have expertise and knowledge that we do not (that’s why we are asking them in the first place), and we need to put this together with our technical knowledge. Together, we are much more likely to find sustainable, long-lasting decisions and choices.
Trend # 4: The Demand for A Voice Is on the Rise
Today, people are seeing things that matter to them, and they're choosing to unite around these issues in new and different ways (e.g. hashtag movements on social media).
Forming Their Own Groups
People are organizing outside engagement practitioner's formation processes, and this poses challenges and opportunities.
When people have formed their groups (e.g. maybe they’re protesting outside an event, or perhaps they’re running their own consultation process) there's an opportunity to invite people into your conversation and potentially learn from their different and valuable perspectives. They obviously care enough about the issue to form a group, so is there an opportunity to learn from their perspective?
We often see people who aren't with us as against us, but this isn't necessarily true. People might not like you, and they might not like the things you're doing, but that shouldn't limit our interest or desire to have a relationship with them and to learn from them.
Trend #5: Technology Has Exploded
We know that technology has exploded, and we're continually finding new ways to connect online; however, technology can't be the only thing we rely on.
We see today that while we have more technology, we're also feeling more isolated than ever before. Especially in today's climate where many of us are working from home, we're trying anything possible to connect.
Technology plays a part in engagement, as do people, as do conversations. Technology has impacts on how and when we engage and our ability to solve problems; however, it's important to remember that it’s just a piece of the process.
Now that we’ve covered the five trends, what do we do with all this information?
Q: How Can We Improve How We Engage?
Once we understand the environment surrounding engagement, we have the opportunity to engage in richer ways to build positive changes with stronger alignment.
4 Stakeholder Engagement Tips
1. We Don't Need All the Answers
It's important to remember that as practitioners, we don't need all the answers; we need to rely on our stakeholders and communities and trust that they have something valuable to offer to the conversation.
2. Relationships are Important
We need to care about relationships just as much as the data. If we put the people and the relationships first, the results will come.
3. Understand Why You're Engaging
Take a moment to define why you're doing what you're doing beforehand.
We often fall into the trap of thinking "we need to engage," and then we quickly book a hall, choose a date and pick the location without considering:
- "Why are we having an open house?"
- "What are we intending to achieve?”
- "Is this choice in alignment with both project and community needs?”
If you don't know why you're doing it, there's no way to understand what is needed, and you certainly cannot figure out how you're doing it, so take the time to develop a solid, but flexible stakeholder engagement plan beforehand where you answer these questions.
4. Engagement is a Journey
We often think of engagement in the context of our projects as something that begins on a specific date and ends on another date without considering how people have come into the project or how people will leave the project. But participants and stakeholders don’t remember it that way. They remember you and your company or your organization. This is important because what they remember will impact how they choose to interact and engage with you in the future.
As engagement practitioners, we are the keepers of the conversations and relationships, and we need to consider the full journey (and all the pieces therein), not just the destination.
Our industry is excellent at creating structure, process and worksheets. We're good at project management and change management, but we can easily miss vital elements like humanity, relationships and connection. We need to consider all these elements for a complete engagement process.
While there’s no “magic wand” for all of this, instead, I encourage you to bring equal parts a critical mind and a compassionate and courageous heart because this work is powerful and opens the door to positively changing lives.
I am a strong proponent of the stakeholder’s voice, concerns and priorities; however, I don’t believe the purpose of engagement is “to make everyone happy.” Rather, I believe the purpose is to offer a complete engagement process where, regardless of the final decision, participants will believe the dialogue was meaningful, they’ll feel their voices were heard, and they’ll be willing participants in the next conversation that impacts them.
Meaningful stakeholder engagement that follows these best practices isn’t always easy, but it’s so important. If you need help, Dialogue Partners has the expertise and experience to guide you through this process.
“The public engagement experts at Dialogue Partners have become thought leaders in engagement, facilitation, and conflict transformation. No matter the client, our mission is to build a sustainable bridge between client and community.”
Q: How Can Dialogue Partners Help?
"Some conversations take place one on one—others involve a cast of thousands! Regardless of your organization's challenge, we can help you create a structured process that allows the perspectives of team members and the community to be heard—and to reach a healthy alignment despite your differences."
At Dialogue Partners, we offer help with:
Building & Facilitating Engagement Projects
- We're often hired by organizations that have an initiative or project who are looking for engagement help.
- We can provide the full services—planning engagement, implementing engagement and reporting on engagement.
Capacity Building & Toolkits
- We offer training programs
- We're licensed trainers of the IAP2 curriculum
- We offer our own courses too (both in-person and online)
- We also have toolkits, policies and frameworks for organizations looking for help creating documentation or processes.
Coaching for People Who Want Guidance
For organizations that already have a team in place but want additional support and guidance, we can offer help with:
- Reviewing your plans
- Offering weekly check-ins and calls for advice and assistance on how to respond to situations
- And more
We help people do the work, design the work, and we support other people who have the capacity to do the work!
A big thank you to Kim and the Dialogue Partners team for taking the time to collaborate with Jambo on this blog post!