Why face-to-face is still relevant in a digital world

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I had the privilege of speaking at the national American Planning Association conference this past week about creating concurrence from conflict. Planners? They’re the folks in your community who are grappling with complex questions: how should we grow? do we have enough affordable housing? traffic? sustainability and resiliency as the global climate changes?

The buzz was about technology, apps for managing community input, mapping, and social media and yet, when I headed down the stairs to our session, the hallway was overflowing with people who wanted to talk about how to deal with people face-to-face.

In this age of digital interface, personal interactions are still where it’s at.

Digital can be loud, it can be very effective, and it can rouse us from our apathy to take part in the workings of our local government. On the receiving end,  digital makes the world move faster and faster, comments come in on a tidal wave, and well-orchestrated campaigns can entirely shift the tenor of a conversation.

A friend of mine shared an experience she had working in a well-to-do college community:

After two years of putting together a thoughtful plan with a great amount of public input and consensus, a small, well-organized and well-funded group entered the discussion. They funded some slick advertisements, ran them on the local TV channels, and completely changed the tenor of the conversation. Two years of careful consensus-building was voted down in one meeting.

That happens. It’s democracy in action.

Why should we bother with the face-to-face when it might all go down the tubes?

Because we are human beings. We need to connect. When we do, our relationships flourish and our understanding of each others’ perspectives can broaden our own point of view. We learn from each other.

In an informal survey of planners, the top three ways in which they interacted with stakeholders was in formal meetings (public hearings, advisory boards) and in face-to-face meetings.

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We have to know how to interact in person. This is not always easy.

It’s hard to meet someone halfway when they’re angry. In fact, you usually have to go more than half way. If you’re a local government employee today, you are probably overworked in an environment with a low level of trust and satisfaction in government. This is a shame because just about everyone I know who works in local government does so by choice. There is a deep satisfaction in going home at night knowing that you’ve spent your day working for the betterment of your community. Whether you repair pot-holes, recycle waste, design streets, or try to help your town figure out how to grow in an enduring way, you’ve bought in to the future.

Yet you’re often met with distrust, demands you can’t meet, and a level of anger and negativity that can be daunting and discouraging.

What to do?

Get to know the people you work for. Sit down with them. Talk it out. Almost without exception, when you can help get past the us-them dynamic to a conversation about what we all have in common, you knit the fabric together, tighter. After all, most of us want the same things from our communities: A safe place to live, meaningful work, education for our children, choices about how we spend our time, and places to interact with each other.

It’s often as easy as asking: can we talk?

You may be surprised by how often the answer is: yes!

 

 

 

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