While technical skill and evidenced-based decision making are crucial to all planning work, the perceived soft skills of listening and relationship building are essential elements of a successful outcome. In my experience these skills are not acknowledged nor valued highly enough, and neither is the time needed for them built into budgets and methodology in a meaningful way. While public participation is usually factored in with a few workshops, this is never enough, and it serves more to tick off a requirement rather than to explore real issues and concerns in a manner that results in trusted relationships and buy-in by the stakeholders. And, even with a perfectly logical, innovative plan, if the stakeholders don’t buy in, nothing will be implemented successfully. From my experience, here are eight tips for building trust:
- Really listen to what you are being told. Be open to the possibilities of where the conversation might lead to.
- Make space for all members of a group to have a chance to talk, otherwise the loudest person in the group will dominate and direct the conversation. Often this means scheduling individual interviews with people so that they can talk privately with you or your team. Once they have had this opportunity, they often return to the group with a more confident voice.
- Remember that while people may seem to be in agreement, sometimes the implications of the project on the ground haven’t been fully explored, so you may believe you have buy-in but it doesn’t actually exist.
- You can’t rush things. Allow people time to digest ideas and come back to you when they are ready. Don’t impose unrealistic deadlines just because you have a strict schedule. Of course deadlines are important, but make sure they are realistic.
- Manage expectations by being honest about what is possible.
- Realise that you may need to explain something in a number of ways over a matter of days or weeks. Even if you think you are very clear, what you are trying to convey might not be clear to everyone in the room.
- You might by unaware of personal relationships and feelings between stakeholders that are getting in the way of the process. Once stakeholders feel confident in the relationship with you, they may begin to start talking honestly about what is concerning them. This may relate to historical relationships or family grievances. You just don’t know, so refer to point 1 and listen.
- Communicate with the stakeholders. Keep them in the loop by letting them know where you are in the process and what is happening. They are the ones who have to live with the outcome of the project, so give them the information that they need to make important decisions.