Introducing engaging stories

I’m convinced that stakeholder engagement is the leading edge of sustainability, and that those organisations most skilled at engagement, are more likely to survive and thrive. Engagement isn’t a new practice; good communicators have been engaging for centuries – but with stakeholder engagement emerging as a discipline we have a better understanding of both the importance of engagement, and the processes required to formalise it.

 The scaffolding

I’m also convinced that formalising stakeholder engagement shouldn’t be too complicated. As with any new discipline, it will require specialised resources until it becomes second nature – patterned into the organisational neural map.

 The role of stories

People will engage more effectively if they are able to navigate the engagement universe. I call it a universe here, because it is so broad and diverse. If we can understand the myriad possibilities for engagement, we are better equipped to engage.

This is where stories are useful. I will be scanning for examples of engagement locally and globally, and hopefully getting leads for stories from you. Companies make considered statements about stakeholder engagement in annual reports and sustainability reports, but they are typically “high level” without revealing what people actually do in their engagement.

The examples I have in mind represent a tiny sample of the diversity of engagement. They range from global community and government level, right down to individuals making a difference in the local community. For example there are the agencies set up to bridge the divide between health clinicians and indigenous people, the oil refinery that provides a secure habitat for an endangered bird species, and a teacher engaging in new ways with parents in the first week of a new job.

 Engaging the heart

James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s great book Encouraging the Heart told us how stories were so important in motivating and inspiring people. Stories also help to create emotional bonds. When we hear the stories of others we empathise with them and new possibilities can be awakened in our hearts as we learn of their lives and achievements. And engagement involves understanding and appreciating the world of your stakeholders. When you have that appreciation, you are far better equipped to find areas of mutual interest and potential collaboration.

Your stories

My stories will follow soon. I would love to hear your stories of engagement. Who were the stakeholders? Was there a gap to be bridged? What was learned? What were the gains?

Communication and engagement part 4: listening

Communication is a core skill for stakeholder engagement.Earlier blogs in this series introduced the communication spectrum and looked in more depth at its engagement and appreciation aspects. This post explores how listening fits with the communication spectrum.

Listening, as with communication, is generic. The communication spectrum helps us to be more specific about the type of communication we want to use, and the same principle applies with listening. For those who haven’t had some sort of coaching or training in listening (the majority of us?), listening is undifferentiated. Some may have learned about active listening. Part of the problem is that good listening, while outwardly passive, takes a lot of focus and discipline, and it’s a little hard to simultaneously listen, and stand back an observe yourself in action.

The neutral zone

Using the communication spectrum, we can identify three zones of listening. In the neutral zone, our listening can be passive and possibly not very effective. We might be disinterested or bored. If our interest is piqued, we might either move towards being more engaged or, on the other hand toward debate and conflict.

The red zone

If our listening heads south towards the red zone we begin to listen for what is wrong. You have probably caught yourself doing this – what started off as a conversation, at some stage became a contest. A clear sign is that you find yourself trying to score points and the communication takes on the pattern of strike and counter-strike of a rally in a tennis match. In formal debates, speakers have their own material to present, but are also listening to find fault in the arguments of the opposition. Debate in our democracies unfortunately operates on this premise, often yielding more heat than light.

The green zone

If the communication heads for the green zone, the listener will draw on skills of rapport building, empathic listening or active listening. For some, these skills have developed non-consciously, others work at them. Expressing appreciation to others needs to be preceded by either observing, or listening for what is right about that person.

Listening for engagement

Communication skills are a core competence for any organisation aspiring to better stakeholder engagement. Improving staff communication skills, in either listening, speaking or writing, equips your staff to engage better internally and externally. One skill especially relevant is empathy. When working with people on engagement processes such as stakeholder mapping, or identifying materiality, I encourage them to think from the stakeholder’s perspective. It takes some practice – it is very easy for people to revert to their own perspective. I suspect this is because most of us are keen to maximise advantage for our organisation. Stakeholder communication calls us to be more nimble and inclusive in our thinking, listening and speaking.