Staying the Course When Things Get Loud & Messy

Public engagement is risky business – if you don’t want the answers, don’t ask the questions.  Common challenges include fear, giving up control, not having the answers, uncertainty of what might happen if you actually engage with the public and stakeholders.  Public engagement often means change, a change in the way decisions are made, a change in the way business is done, a change in the way an organization interacts with people externally and internally.  Change can be hard, and supporting it when people are resistant, emotional and vocal can be even harder.


The context of engagement has changed significantly over the last several years and the issues we’re facing are more complex.  There is an increasing impatience with asking people to respond to “solutions” put forward by organizations and an increase in the speed of reaction to issues.  Distrust is increasing and positive engagement experiences don’t make the news.  With an increase in activism, advocacy and attention given to the loudest voices there is a shift in the perception of power to influence decisions, and our interactions with each other are changing, becoming less human and less caring.  Public participation seems to be everywhere all the time, by every organization, and there is growing recognition of the need and benefit for the process.

Many of us have understood that the foundation of successful engagement is in planning; and have been taught and practiced that a good engagement plan will bring you success. And sometimes that is all you need.  But what seems to be missing is an understanding of how and when to go beyond good and meaningful engagement, and that sometimes you need more than a good process.

We’ve experienced a few situations where we had really great, solid engagement plans, but the outcomes were not the success we intended.  Our team at Dialogue Partners have been spending some time trying to understand what happens in these situations.  If the context we’re working in is changing, what are we doing to keep up to these changes, to adjust and to adapt as well? The sense now is that public participation isn’t “good enough”.

We know things aren’t going as planned when people stop talking, when the tone shifts, becomes more pointed and positional, and when issues become personalized.  When this happens, our solid engagement plans aren’t enough.  What’s needed is something more.  Something that will prepare us, our clients, the organizations we work with and in, decision makers, elected officials and staff, to stay the course when things get bumpy.  Which might mean we experience something different than what was planned.


We have come to realize that successful engagement doesn’t happen as a result of any one specific interaction, action, effort or event.  Successful engagement happens in the space of the complex interaction of 4 key factors: Risk, Change, Trust & Leadership.

Risk and Change are usually where we focus most of our energy and efforts when planning engagement.

Risk is the potential or the perception of a negative impact, and the emotional response or reaction that is associated with this perception and/or reality.  These are risks to engagement, real and perceived, can impede progress forward and ultimately stop projects.

Change is the commitment to engagement, clarity and understanding of goals, objectives and purpose.  It is the understanding that as our projects progress there is an opportunity to plan for change to progress and deepen as well; from awareness to understanding to shared meaning through to commitment and co-ownership – between an organization and participants, and between participants as well.

Effective change processes and the management of risk are achieved through what we do, and is guided by the strategies and plans that we create.

Say we stop here though.  When we encounter challenges, roadblocks or adverse reactions, we rely on our plans and strategies to get us through because this is all we have.

This is often the turning point for success (or lack of it) in these situations.  Continuing on the pre-determined path we’ve planned likely won’t cut it.  Making small adjustments to be responsive to reactions or issues won’t create different results either. When we created our plans it was based on the context at the time, when the context changes, the approach needs to change significantly, or everything will go sideways. This is where processes and projects get stuck.

However, there is another half of the equation. The other half of the equation to success is grounded in Trust and Leadership.  If Risk and Change are all about what we do, Trust and Leadership is about how we do it.

Trust can only be earned through demonstrated behaviours and actions that embody caring for people, their time and their input, commitment to using the input and keeping it, and a focus on building relationships that is as important as moving the project forward.  Having a great plan doesn’t build trust, but rather how you implement that plan does. It is one thing to be focused on whether your stakeholders trust you, and to think through the actions that might build their trust in you, but you must also trust them.  It is reciprocal trust that builds strong relationships.

Leadership requires an understanding of the strengths, weakness and styles we have, as well as those of others.  We aren’t only talking about leadership with a capital “L” as in those whole old official or formal roles, but the opportunity for all of us to be leaders and to embody leadership abilities and behaviours in different ways and approaches.  This applies to organizational staff, community members, public engagement practitioners, elected officials and senior management. As our engagement projects progress, we need different leadership styles or characteristics at different stages.  We often believe that those in formal leadership positions are the ones who are needed to lead when things get bumpy.  However, depending on what’s happening and what’s needed, they may not be the best suited person to help get us through.  This is where we’ve found the impact and value of the “right” kind of leader is an enormous determinant of success.

A focus towards planning for mitigating Risk and building Trust will result in the potential for building strong relationships.  A focus towards embracing progress and impact of Change and having strong and effective Leadership at the right time, will result in the potential for positive momentum.

Good engagement is the balance of these 4 factors, with the resulting outcomes of:

  • Positive momentum
  • Strong relationships
  • Reciprocal responsibility
  • Acceptance and approval

Often though there is an imbalance or tension among the perceptions of risk, understanding of change and the need for trust and leadership.

Assessing where we are in terms of strength with each factor, and understanding where the tensions exist needs to become a core part of our engagement planning processes.  This assessment up front identifies whether we need to spend time, energy and effort on building capacity and understanding  (to improve our strength in elements associated with Risk and Change) or on actions and behaviours (to improve our ratings in Trust and Leadership), and allows us to be aware of challenges we may face when things don’t go as planned.

Considering these factors and addressing them during the planning stage will help us in achieving optimum results and establish commitment and the ability to “stay the course”.  To help determine this, we’ve created the CLaRiTE© diagnostic tool, consisting of a series of questions to assess the strength of each factor and identify tensions and next steps.    

If you are interested in learning more about this tool, contact us:

If our role as practitioners is be advocates of the process, we need to focus beyond the techniques and tools of the process that can be planned out on paper, to that which will serve us well when things get messy.  This is what will deepen our practice, commitment and success.  No one can ever be completely “ready” for when things don’t go as planned, but being aware and having these conversations is easier and more effective before a crisis hits.  This type of planning better supports and serves our organizations, our teams, the people, the practice and ourselves as practitioners.  Public participation can be messy and needs tending and nurturing.  We need the wisdom and courage to do these things.


Steph Roy McCallum