How to approach people

Such are the social niceties of our modern civilised society that it is increasingly difficult for us to approach people we do not know. This is particularly so when we are in - or about to enter - a conflictual situation. Rare is the manager who relishes a work performance review with a staff member who is operating below par.

But until people can actually sit down and face each other then progress is not possible. Even in the most entrenched position, there is always some flexibility. But to unearth this flexibility, a dialogue must commence. The situation in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East (both of which will, no doubt, have moved on since this book was written) are prime examples. Yet with the use of mediation and goodwill on both sides, the levels of mistrust can be reduced so that a dialogue can begin. Neither side is ever completely happy. This is natural - both have had to give away a little of their position.

These are some of the reasons why a dialogue does not occur:

■ Labelling. From a great distance, we decide that someone is an enemy. This may be because of a quote in a newspaper article, because of some piece of hearsay or just because that is how we think that person should be. So we decide that all socialists are anti-business, that all conservatives are anti-trades unions, that all residents are anti-development and that all politicians are cynical. Nothing is further from the truth. Political parties are broad churches and, within any grouping of people, each individual will hold individual views. These often run counter to those of the majority in that grouping.

■ Fear. We do not like conflict so we avoid it. How will we react - in a one-to-one highly personal situation - with this person who we believe hates us. Do we shake hands or is that premature? Who sits down first? All of these thoughts - very human as they are - stop us making the first move.

■ It's never been done before. Most things that are really worthwhile have never been done before. The fear of learning is a huge one and when faced with the challenge, we tend to revert to behaviour we are more familiar with. In controversial environmental projects, it is far easier to send out a press release on a Friday evening from the comfort of one's desk rather than arrange to meet a local politician on a Sunday morning.

■ It's too risky. A cousin of the last reason - but now we justify our fear with a vague threat that the whole project may be threatened, as this example shows.


A regional local authority had decided that an incinerator was its only way of dealing with waste. As with many authorities nowadays, it decided to utilise a private company to undertake the construction and management of this enterprise.

We were surveying the local media on behalf of another client and we noticed that this was the big local hot issue. Both the local members of parliament (from different parties) had mounted campaigns; the local newspaper had organised a petition and the local district councils were up in arms lest this menace be sited in their areas.

After we finished our work for our original client, we called the private waste company to see if we could be of any service. The response was astonishing. 'I am amazed that you believe there are any public relations problems. Everything is under control, said the director of communications. We pointed to the opposition locally. He angrily riposted: 'Yes, but we have a road show and major media


campaign starting next month and this will bring the truth out. We haven't even begun to talk facts yet - but when we present the facts, then you will see a huge change. The politicians will run out of steam and then they will come around.'

We never got to work for that potential client and the incinerator has still to be built.

■ We don't want to be accused of lobbying. This is a very legitimate reason - lobbying is rapidly becoming a disgraced art. In many countries, there are now - rightly - strong laws governing lobbying.

However, consulting with local people, understanding their needs and reacting to them is not lobbying - it is consultation. Something which is enshrined in all modern democracies.

The first approach

By even approaching these people, cover will have been broken. Organisations are hugely sensitive about this: what happens if they go to the media? What happens if they form an action group? If these things are going to happen, then they are going to happen anyway.

When approached, it is highly likely that the person will tell someone else. So, for example, if one approaches the chairman of the parish council, he or she will tell the clerk or other members what is happening. On occasion, he or she may not, but it is as well to assume that the mere fact of approaching someone is telling them that something major is about to happen.

We will not necessarily be made aware of these discussions - this is normal. As we saw from the interplay within the power pyramid, it will not take long for our intervention to become common knowledge. As far as the key movers and shakers in the community are concerned, we might as well have taken out an advertisement in the local paper.

However, if we have undertaken our diagnostic correctly, we will not have breached protocol. In particular, we have not gone prematurely public (the DAD strategy). There will be curiosity to see where we are coming from. And there should be a certain relief for the politicians in particular that we decided to take some soundings on the ground before going for a full-scale public launch.

The diagnostic has a second important role now. It allows us to talk to people at the minutest level on their terms. This is important. Too often projects are launched with only a cursory knowledge of the locality. Not only is this dangerous (one can only guess at what landmines one is walking on) but it is insulting. The politician who has to ask: 'But surely you know the local hospital is closing?' will not have much respect for the organisation that does not know this key fact. It also shows a lack of care and concern for the community. It says: 'All we really want to do is get in here, get our project finished, make a profit and get out.' These early signals are very difficult to retract.

Finally, the diagnostic allows one to open a conversation on familiar ground for both parties. This chit chat is normal social human behaviour. Jumping straight into the business in hand is, in most cultures, discourteous.

After the initial attunement, it is important that questions are kept on a general level. Broad, open questions are best; for example:

■ What do you know about the project?

■ What do you think of the project? (the answer can be very hurtful)

■ What would make the project better?

The answers to these simple questions are most revealing, not so much on what people know, but rather on the level of lack of knowledge. In one case, a councillor said: 'I have not read any of the documents pertaining to this project - I don't need to: I know it is bad and I will oppose it totally.' It was the same councillor who later said: 'You know I have now read the original document - it wasn't that bad at all.' One should not attempt to correct facts at this stage - there will be plenty of time for people to come to their own realisation of the facts in due course.

Neither is the objective to lobby, it is to ascertain levels of knowledge, but more important, to find out what the problems with the project are and what might make it better, so as to make it acceptable.

In general, interviews should last about one hour or longer in order to be assured that true views - not just superficial knee jerks - are being given.

These first interviews should ascertain the positions of the people concerned. They should also begin to give an indication as to who are the really useful TPAs rather than those we think are useful.

They may suggest initiatives which might be taken:

■ Modifications to the proposals. This is the biggest fear of organisations. 'If we open this up to every Tom, Dick and Harry', they say, 'they will make totally unreasonable demands on us. They will change the project totally and it will be unworkable'. Nothing is further from the truth. For the most part, we are dealing with supporters. The intractable opponents are being ignored (politely, of course). Those approached are people who may want the project to succeed.

In our experience, the modifications demanded are small and generally involve very local issues: traffic control around the entrance to a site, for example. In addition, non-technical people do not have the technical ability to make radical changes: long way around in technical projects, we are all in the hands of the engineers and the scientists.

■ Other TPAs. There should be a review of who the potential TPAs, supporters and opponents may be. It will be remarkable how these views differ from our first stakeholder audit. People who were labelled as total opponents are being touted by people on the ground as potential supporters.

■ Win-win projects. These are one of the most important outputs from these meetings and are dealt with in the next section.

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