Solve problems by involving those who have them

In 1973, I was fortunate enough to be selected for a position at what was then the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Land Between The Lakes. I had been a newspaper reporter and editor up until then, and I was excited about working in the field of “public relations.”I was chosen to be the Reports Editor, a title that really meant nothing. Reports Editor is one of those arcane titles that the federal government uses to “hide their real intent.” I was in this position from 1973-1979.Looking back, I would say that this job probably taught me more than any of the others.Local people in western Kentucky and Tennessee have feelings that run deep even to this day about TVA. Those people, especially the ones who were forced from their homes for TVA’s national demonstration area in outdoor recreation and environmental education, will never get over it.However, when I was 23, I saw this opportunity as a great challenge. I decided from day one to reach out and engage all members of the public who had an interest in the project, especially the former residents and the business community. I sought to develop working relationships among diverse groups.More than once, management questioned why I spent many extra hours attending meetings of the tourist associations, chambers, economic development committees and the various state agency public hearings.

I may not have been able to articulate it then, but now I realize what the answer to this question was. If you truly want to solve a problem, you must involve the people with the problem in the solution. You must develop meaningful and sustainable relationships with them based on trust.

I took my responsibility of being a “public servant” seriously. I believed then, just as I do today, that all government employees have an obligation to engage the taxpayers (the very people who pay taxes to provide government employees’ salaries) in meaningful discussions to find appropriate solutions to difficult problems.

Many of my colleagues thought and felt, as they expressed to me, that I was wasting my time trying to develop relationships with the very people who wanted TVA to take the proverbial hike.

They were wrong then, and government agencies that still play at public involvement and engagement without meaningful intent are even more wrong now.

Since the taxpayers’ money pays government employee salaries, the taxpaying public has the right to be engaged in helping agencies make the best possible decisions.

Allow me to give you an example.

Recently, I was asked to facilitate a series of public meetings for a federal agency. I quickly determined after the first meeting, a nightmare for all involved, that two things were readily apparent:

– The federal agency didn’t really want a facilitated meeting. Facilitated meetings in my world are set up to bring all the people to the table and keep them there, no matter how long, until an agreed upon path forward is determined.

– The agency really wanted a traffic cop or a moderator for these meetings. The second meeting we moderated, even though I thought it unwise to do. The meeting went well although I voiced my professional opinion, something I rarely do when I am conducting a meeting.

I told the public that we had advised the agency that its meeting model should be changed to a more educational and involvement model rather than just an informational model. An educational model would allow for significantly more public involvement and, at the least, shared assessment of the problem, if not some shared decision-making.

Needless to say, the agency and my former contractor have decided they “really don’t have the funds to have a facilitator.”

Frankly, I am glad they came to that decision. I was going to be forced to walk away from the project anyway, something I have done in the past when agencies tried to fake public engagement by applying only the necessary rules and regulations.

This leads me back to the need to solve the problems by involving the people directly affected.

There are six steps I recommend to truly involve the people directly affected, whether it is a small business or a government agency manager:

– Ask those involved to share the information they want to share, not just the information you want them to share. Be prepared to keep your mouth closed and your ears open.

Ask open-ended questions like, “What else do we need to know that is important for you to share?”

Questions like these not only enable the customer or the member of the public (stakeholder) to vent. It also allows them to be involved in the assessment of the problem.

– Ask them to prioritize information they have shared. Because they are venting, this is their therapy, and you will get a significant information dump. Have them help you figure out the really important information they have shared.

It annoys people with a problem or complaint when you assume you know what concerns them most.

– Ask them for their advice or opinions.

Oh, I know foresters, fishery experts, nuclear specialists and government managers all know what they are doing more so than the public does, However, they (read taxpayer here for government agencies and customer for small business) do have opinions and advice to share.

Being willing to ask for advice and opinions does not mean that you will necessarily take it. This should also be stated up front. However, when you understand their priorities, their values and their viewpoints, a solution can often be created which meets the needs of all parties involved.

– Offer them alternatives.

People are more committed to decisions that they help make. Not only are they committed, they have a stake in the decision and, as such, will help defend the decision, if need be.

In addition, if you are a small business person, you will demonstrate to the customer that you are taking that extra step to satisfy the complaint or meet the request.

When the request can’t be met, for whatever reason, be prepared to offer alternatives.

– Determine the minimum need.

Ask the customer or the stakeholder what he or she would like you to do immediately. This helps to diffuse their anger rather quickly. If this is not done correctly, especially in the government world, outrage can and often does result.

When members of the public become outraged, it often results in unwanted political or media involvement. Don’t believe this? Did you watch the public outrage over the shooting of the unarmed minority teenager in Florida? Or, perhaps you recall the “Occupiers” movement in the larger cities?

By taking some action, you gain some additional time to take care of the greater problem.

– Ask them to provide you some alternative solutions.

Be direct in your request. If you are a small business person say something like, “Ms. Jones, I’m stumped. I’ve offered you all the alternative solutions I can. What kind of solution would you propose?”

Often this makes people realize they are being unreasonable, or at the very least, it lessens the tension and re-engages all parties toward working to a mutually acceptable path forward.

You probably have figured this out by now. Underlying all these actions is your intention to build workable and meaningful relationships.

When you have built meaningful and sustainable relationships, and you have demonstrated that your behaviors match your words (you walk your talk), then your chances of building workable solutions greatly increases. Your willingness to involve the people impacted can make all the difference in solving a mutual problem.

Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong, Armstrong and Associates, is a consultant and counselor. He can be reached at drdarryl@aol.com or 1-888-340-2006 or www.ldarrylarmstrong.com

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