Responding to the Grosvenor Positive Space community charter initiative, Catherine Greig of Make:Good says that ultimately, good consultation is about properly listening to what people say.
When you strip away all the distractions of public engagement, the venues; the print material; the innovative technology; the decisions about colours and catering; the photogenic ways of collecting feedback; everything, it really just comes down to are you listening carefully. Yes we should do all we can to ensure people feel special and valued in the process, we want it to be enjoyable to participate, but it is easy to slip into that being your only focus and losing sight of why people are engaging and to what end. The danger with focusing on all these details is that the whole exercise becomes meaningless, beautifully curated maybe, but meaningless and this must be avoided.
There are two ways I think you stop this from happening; they seem so obvious when I write them down but time and time again I see them being forgotten.
1. Know what the point is
This first point is about meaning; do you know why you are asking what you are asking? What will you do with the answers, and are you asking for them at a time that they can have any influence over the project. In essence, what is the point; we have probably all stood in a room when somebody says "What is the point of this? You have decided already!" and for engagement to be meaningful, you need to have a great answer to this.
Before you start planning out any of your engagement activities, take some time to work out what you want to understand from the feedback you gather; I call this working out the project's scope of influence. By writing and sharing the scope of influence with the designers, the community and the client, it means we are all as clear as possible on what we are talking about, why and when. There will be some decisions that it is really hard for people to influence, because they will be determined by policy for example, and I always advocate for being clear about this as well.
It's important to establish the scope of influence as early as possible, because the reality is that the later you leave it, the less influence people have, and without influence, there is no meaning, and without meaning, it does not matter how good your activities are, they can never foster the relationships you want.
2. Really listen carefully
Meaningful engagement requires the best listening you can do. Be present, by which I mean be 100% in the conversations. If you really reflect on this, how often do people get your undivided attention? So, an obvious point perhaps, but something we humans so rarely do, and that is key in creating and maintaining the good relationships that are necessary to get worthwhile feedback.
Listen deeply to what people are saying. Be curious and segue into the parts of the conversation that might seem off topic because these can sometimes be the most revealing. Join in the conversation, offer some of yourself so that people know you are in it with them, and not just vacantly noting down their ideas. We have all been on the receiving end of that kind of listening and it feels awful. Practice asking really good questions that get to the bottom of what people mean; ‘So how does that impact on what you do?’ and ‘What would happen if we did that differently’?’ are some of my favourites to find out what people really think would be the result of change.
Check back in and repeat what you have heard, because we can all fall into the trap of hearing what we want to and looking for things that reinforce our views, our ideas. Saying ‘I am hearing this is that right?’ is a great way of just making sure that you are collecting ideas and opinions accurately.
Listen for the emotion, not just the words; sometimes what we say and what we are trying to evoke are different things so listen out for it. This requires a lot of emotional intelligence but it is where the real relationship building happens. I genuinely think if you can understand the emotion behind what is being said then the project can truly reflect local aspirations and that is better for everybody.
Ultimately, I think on the quest for greatness in the world of public engagement, for me it usually comes down to doing the simple things in the best way possible. Get these things right and then the trappings give the process a joyful feel, but the whole thing is already set up and grounded to be purposeful. The joy, excitement and fun is part of why I love what I do so much, and also why I think it is effective because people respond to things that they enjoy. But there is always a point, an opinion, an emotional response, that no matter how fun a task might be, people want to share, and we want to hear.
I want Positive Space to be an opportunity for Grosvenor to really focusing on the listening, increasing their emotional intelligence and doing what they say they will before asking for something in return. Requesting reciprocity where relationships have been out of balance in the past seems unfair so my challenge to Grosvenor will be to earn it by being consistently brilliant at listening and responding so that there is meaning in the process.
Meaning, especially in complex and charged situations and circumstances, can be hard to tease out, but it is important to ensure we do it with all of our faculties, as well as our sense of fun and fancy. So listen. Listen properly. Listen with care, attention, empathy and thoroughness. And you will hear what you need to.
Catherine Greig is the Founder & Director of Make:Good, an architecture& design studio involving people in shaping neighbourhood change.
This piece is one of six essays about public engagement from activists, influencers and frontline workers commissioned by Grosvenor as part of their Positive Space Community Charter initiative. The full list is: