I just got back from a luncheon-talk on a mine proposal. It was interesting in that I think I learned some things about the project. It was a bit hard to tell if I learned something useful because the talk was designed to shape my thinking in the way they wanted me to see things. It was geared toward me leaving with the impression that there is very little cause for concern. But I listen with a critical ear. It was a competition between my critical ear and his persuasive abilities.
There was a buzz as I waited to buy my ticket. People expected a show. And they were right! We patiently and politely waited until the presenter delivered his presentation and then the audience unleashed their questions that were intended to find flaws in his information or discredit his motives. I became fascinated with the process.
The speaker was presenting a set of data that lead to the logical conclusion that there were no causes for concern. He hoped to shape the direction of thought for a group of people. He did not include information that would take people in another direction. It was focused and strategic. Essentially the intention was to persuade, which is the linear response to the requirement to interact with the public. The audience’s job was to find holes in his logic, or identify possible problems. Or agree, of course. We all unconsciously knew the rules of the game.
It made me start to think about the circular option for public information sessions which would be Consultation. Consultation is a two way exchange of information where the parties are transparently and interactively sharing ideas without a set understanding of where the end point should be. It is open and inclusive. You know it will end when the meeting time is over, but you don’t preconceive what will come out of the meeting. There is a trust that the collective wisdom of the group will result in an outcome that no one party could have devised on their own.
Timing becomes a very important factor in whether you follow a circular or linear public information process. Consultation needs to happen early in the project before people are set on a particular direction and thousands of dollars have been spent. Persuasion is a late stage method, when the meaning of what you are doing has been agreed upon and it is time to be productive.
Persuasion uses power which matches the Max Weber definition, “to assert your will even against the will of others”, hopefully towards the best good for all. As international conflict mediator Adam Kahane stated in his book Power and Love “There is no way to change the status quo without discomforting those who are comfortable with the status quo.” Consultation is rooted in a different definition of power. It sees power as being all you are capable of being and wanting others to be all that they can be.
Problems occur when you are calling a process consultation when it is really persuasion.