By Kit Cole & Maureen Tobin
Doing community outreach and public participation (P2) is tough work – and we should know! We’ve been engaging with communities for many decades, and in order to keep on doing the work you have to make sure you take care of yourself.
Here are our three favorite ways to take care of yourself when your neighbors, the broader community, and elected officials (not to mention your boss!) keep turning up the heat:
1) Focus on the “Long Horizon”
While today you may be overwhelmed by angry neighbors and frustrated electeds, we recommend reminding yourself of the “long horizon” - those things that we can all agree on - clean water, safe streets and neighborhoods and good schools for all. At the end of the day, your long-term goal is to ensure the community is involved in conversations about the projects that move forward so those projects represent what your community wants and needs. And, our hope is that two or five or 10 years from now, P2 will continue to be an integral part of the ongoing city-community relationship. It's not always easy to step back and see the long horizon when you’re in the thick of it, but choosing to focus on the long-term and things that we can all agree on helps put any short-term pain in perspective. You might even like to envision an actual beach with a very, very far off horizon and a lovely sunset when you’re driving home from that tough community meeting.
2) Open the “Vents” (but not too wide!)
In order to release the frustration you might feel throughout the P2 process, it’s good to vent. But please make sure you’re venting in a private place with a trustworthy person. Someone we know once slipped up and vented about a neighborhood group to a work colleague while getting in their cars at the local car wash. Big mistake! People will overhear your venting, guaranteed – so try to keep that public sector chatter private. Mindful venting is strongly encouraged – it’s important to unload your thoughts and feelings so you can get back out there and do the great outreach and communications work that you do. But remember, the best place to vent is somewhere with doors that close – an office at work or a room in your house. A place you control who can hear and who can’t. And keep those “vents” closed while in Council Chambers – it can be hard to tell when microphones are truly off or if the speakerphone accidentally got dialed.
3) Quit Taking It Personally (QTIP)
Try shifting your mindset and remember that none of this is about you. Angry neighbors and residents aren’t responding to you, personally. Usually, folks are just frustrated about a certain issue and sometimes it’s not even your issue at hand. Oftentimes, neighbors are fed up about something else entirely! Here’s what we do – it may sound silly but please trust us when we tell you it works! Put a Q-Tip in your pocket before your next meeting with the angry neighbors, then slip your hands in your pockets during the meeting. The Q-Tip is your physical reminder to Quit Taking It Personally (Q-TIP) and to remember the ”long horizon” (see #1).
For P2 expertise, training, and resources to help you with your community outreach, please visit us at The P2Club and the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement & Civic Leadership. Next week is the final installment in our series on best practices in P2 - so don’t miss it!