3 Keys to Successful Communication

I started my career as an engineer. It was, ironically, a great foundation for the work I now do in the field of social marketing and communications. It gave me a great understanding of how to think through problems methodically regardless of the issue. Most of the work my firm does is coordinating communications to communities regarding environmental and community issues and being able to understand the communication gaps that inevitably arise between the technical issues and community stakeholders.
However, I have to admit, that engineering background wasn’t great for what I like to call the negotiations of ideas. And as my career turned from “doing the math” to “communicating the math,” I quickly learned some important rules of thumb for engaging with people and negotiating ideas to build support for community programs.

One of my most important lessons came in my first project as a consultant. I helped the City of Los Angeles move from temporary one day collection events of household hazardous waste throughout the City to setting up permanent locations where residents could more conveniently get rid of their toxics. The first location was going to be in East Los Angeles, a traditionally underserved community, and would help address environmental justice issues in an area that had a disproportionate amount of environmental problems. It seemed like a great starting point for the program.

My job was to coordinate a regional partnership with neighboring cities and obtain a grant from the State to help fund the project. I quickly built a regional coalition of neighboring cities and within a few months secured grant funding from the State.

The plan was then for the City staff to find the ideal location, present it to the community and build the facility. Well, they did the first part, but then things came to a screeching halt when the community was presented with the proposal to locate a “hazardous waste collection facility” in their part of town. They went ballistic, were quickly up in arms and had the project stopped.

What went wrong? Well, the City staff and the community saw things differently, which stemmed from the difference in what the City said in their messages and what the community heard.

Getting buy-in on ideas or negotiating their acceptance is not usually easy, because people don’t just hear what you say they hear what they think you mean. And depending on the history of the relationship, resolving these differences is not always easy, but here are three important steps that I have learned that can help.

1.    Explain the Why before the What:
Don’t mix up the reason why you are doing something with what you are doing. Many times, especially when you are very close to the issue, the reason you are doing something is self-evident, but it isn’t to your audience. Starting with why helps frame the issue and explain the motivation for why you are trying to accomplish what you are attempting to do.
2.    Focus on Interests not Positions:
This is a classic negotiation practice that William Ury and Roger Fisher discuss in their book “Getting to Yes.” Understanding your audience’s interests will help ensure your reason (or Why) aligns with their interests. It also moves the conversation away from an inflexible and binary question of “do they support your idea’s position or not?” to “how can we meet common interests?”
3.    Imagine Their Victory Speech:
In the end, any good negotiation should be a win–win proposition as Ury and Fisher urge. And understanding what your stakeholders need to have to win is important. It helps you decide how, if there is an impasse, changes can be made to accommodate their needs and still help you ensure their win won’t jeopardize your own win. Sometimes after thinking through all their possible “victory speeches” there may not be compatibility, but better to have a sense of that from the outset.

So, what happened to the household hazardous waste facility? In this case, the interests were aligned and a win-win was actually easy to reach after we all regrouped. The facility was renamed the SAFE Center and the communication was re-designed to emphasize their interests, i.e., a place where residents could safely get their toxics removed from the community, instead of a collection center where toxics would be collected in the community.
In the end, lessons were learned, concerns were addressed and the new facility was built.

*Photo courtesy of Home for Business.