“By listening to my visitor, I identified his frustrations, cleared his confusion, and opened up the opportunity to effectively communicate the project to him.” ~ Jairo Martinez, Public Outreach Specialist
It was an extremely hot day at the end of August. You could see the harshness of the humidity in everyone’s eyes. The men and women in their business suits were barely escaping the heat under any shade they could possibly find. I was in my air conditioned office (a temporary project outreach center set up in the waiting room of a heavily traveled train station), successfully sheltered from the heat, when a visitor entered my center.
There was no expression of relief on his face, not even a sigh for momentarily beating the heat. Instead, he asked me if he could leave a comment in regard to the project. His tone of voice was as aggressive as he could be without yelling at me. I told him he was more than welcome to leave a comment, so I provided him with a pen, a comment card and comfortable seat. He refused the chair and instead began to say with much conviction how he opposed this project. I understood that this heat was irritating many people that day, but this visitor was not being driven by the heat, but by the lack of understanding he had for the project. He continued by giving his reasons for opposing the project, his reason for his anger and his reason for not using our website to submit his comment.
At that point, I could have easily redirected his aggression by trying to point out the positives of the project and how much our communities could benefit from it, but I understood that this tactic was not going to calm my visitor down. Instead, I took a few steps back from him, pulled a chair out, and said, “Please have a seat. I want to keep listening to your reasons for opposing the project.” He agreed, sat down and without delay continued on.
We sat at my desk uninterrupted for 30 minutes as I listened to my visitor. Halfway through his lengthy list of reasons for opposing the project, I could tell the anger he held had begun to fade away. His body language was much more composed and the weight of his confusion for the project was starting to lift. Eventually, I noticed my visitor had sat back in his chair, looked much more comfortable and his tone of voice was not as aggressive as before. I had not said much, but always kept eye contact with him, nodding my head so that he knew I was still listening to him. Once he was done speaking, I began to address each of his concerns and consistently thanked him for taking time out of his day to visit our outreach center.
When my visitor left the outreach center, he was very grateful to me for taking the time to listen to his concerns and frustrations. He said that he still needs time to see if the benefits of the project are really going to be positive, but that he was no longer afraid of any false negative impacts he had previously heard from his neighbors. He also changed his mind about leaving a negative comment in regard to the project. That is a successful encounter with a stakeholder.
I understood that his anger originated from misinformation he had collected regarding the project. Not all of us are tech-savvy and for those that aren’t, it becomes difficult to find information on a website, which causes more frustration. For us to successfully minimize the damage caused by miscommunication, we need to thoroughly analyze each encounter with our stakeholders and proactively listen to their frustrations. For example, I could have just explained the project to my visitor while pointing out the positive impact it will have on our neighboring communities, but this would still have left my visitor angry. By listening to my visitor, I identified his frustrations, cleared his confusion, and opened up the opportunity to effectively communicate the project to him. My visitor left the outreach center with a positive memory of our encounter, which he will hopefully pass on to his neighbors.
So remember, when temperatures start to rise, a cool head and welcome ear can go a long way to turning a negative into a positive.
-Jairo Martinez (Public Outreach Specialist)