Setting the Stage

The scene: A consultant and attorney representing a responsible party are presenting the results of their latest assessment of off-site groundwater contamination. The audience is filled with homeowners who live nearby. In response to a question from a frustrated resident, the consultant says "Believe me, I know how you feel." For many meetings such a phrase can be a kiss of death. Such comments can result in audible sighs of frustration or can provoke heated and often counterproductive discourse. "No, you do not know how we feel." The truth is, unless your home has been impacted by an environmental release, you do not fully understand the concerns of the residents. Try to empathize with the homeowner but not express an emotional connection. In their eyes, you are the opposition. Recognize your limits and remain friendly and neutral.

Public involvement meetings, whether to present the results of an investigation or to propose the construction of a new industrial facility, can become forums for heated exchanges. Often, angry residents, the press and politicians, all with different agendas, can sidetrack a meeting and a project -- or worse, can totally derail it. Such is the case when any two opposing forces are brought together. But by understanding the following simple truisms, one can increase the chances that the process will be educational and productive.

Be Truthful

Telling the truth can be difficult, but it is necessary in order to establish trust with anyone. It is difficult to tell the truth when it means an admission of a mistake, the delivery of bad news or staking out an unpopular position, however, honest admissions can enhance your credibility during later discussions. By recognizing mistakes or errors you are offering a bridge between aggrieved parties and the responsible party, which can help promote a productive discourse rather than an angry debate or worse.

Often, angry residents, the press and politicians, all with different agendas, can sidetrack a meeting and a project -- or worse, can totally derail it.

Our experience with public involvement projects is that when the truthful message is delivered, it may initially be received poorly. But once the audience understands that you are being candid and attempting to present the information in an objective manner, they will be more receptive. The audience will respect your position as a technical expert even if they do not necessarily like the position they are being put in or like the position you are advocating.

Listen to Question

Members of the public and consultants have made an effort by their attendance at the meeting to show an interest in the discussion. It is safe to assume that they are listening to your presentation and are attempting to understand the information being conveyed. It is therefore very important that you listen to their questions carefully and attempt to understand what question is being asked. Because someone in an audience may not have a complete grasp of the technical, regulatory or financial nuances of the project, they may not be completely clear in their questions. Regardless, their concerns are valid and their questions provide insight as to areas of the investigation that may be deficient or may require review. Do not be afraid to ask your own questions in an effort to better understand what points require additional clarification or to more clearly define the intent or purpose of the question. Also remember that there is a limit to the issues you should or can comment on due to a lack of data, technical expertise or project understanding. Do not guess or theorize when unsure. If necessary, offer to follow up the question at a later date, and be sure to do so.

Keep Responses Short and Simple

Long-winded responses tend to be difficult to follow especially when laced with the acronyms and technical terms so common in the environmental industry. Attempt to keep comments short, concise and direct so that most people in the audience can follow your thought process and the information being delivered. You want to educate and inform the listener. There are two reasons to keep responses and comments short. The first is that the longer the response, the more likely the audience is to think that you are trying to hide something or snowball them with technical mumbo-jumbo. The second is that the longer you talk, the more likely you are to mis-speak. Formulate a short statement in your head and then say it outloud. Try to avoid rambling discourses that are likely to confuse the listener and lead you to inadvertently say something you did not intend to say.

Honest admissions can enhance your credibility during late discussions.

Recognize When You Agree

Be willing to concede a point and recognize when you agree with a potential adversary's statement. Continual disagreement on even the most obvious point can be tiresome and can appear argumentative. On the same note, recognize when you must agree to disagree. Sometimes more than one opinion is legitimate based on an existing data set. Do not be afraid to recognize that a position or point of view is legitimate even if it differs from yours.

A consultant presenting the results of a groundwater assessment presented a figure depicting a well-defined contaminant plume migrating off-site. A member of the audience pointed out that in his opinion, the assessment work was not complete and that the consultant would never know the full extent of the plume or whether small pockets of contamination remained here or there. "You are right" was the consultant's response. "Investigations of this type are never able to state with 100 percent certainty that another small pocket of contamination does not exist." The short, conciliatory answer was intended to send a message. Though one could argue that more assessment was necessary, no amount of additional data would answer all the questions to the total satisfaction of the residents.

Avoid Certain Phrases

The phrases "believe me" and "trust me" have no place in meetings where one party is being compensated to represent the interests of another. There is an inherent level of distrust whenever an attorney or consultant is making a presentation. Similarly, avoid the phrase "I know how you feel" because unless you are also an aggrieved party you will never know how someone else feels.

Instead, attempt to establish a level of trust in the work that you are conducting and the presentations and statements you are making. If you remain truthful, those in the audience will not have to be told to believe you because they already will believe you. Similarly, recognize that though you may be an expert in your field, you will never be able to fully understand how someone else feels. In this instance, you must remain compassionate and understanding at the frustration that others may be feeling and must work to address their concerns.

Attempt to keep comments short, concise and direct so that most people in the audience can follow your thought process and the information being delivered.

Respond Carefully

A consultant volunteered to represent the residents of an inner-city neighborhood and agreed to review the results of an investigation conducted on behalf of a nearby polluter. During the discussion of the review, a local politician interrupted saying, "Why should we believe you, you consultants are all the same. You don't live here and you guys are all in bed together." After a brief pause the consultant responded: "I have conducted the review objectively and if you do not have confidence in my review you should retain someone you are more comfortable with." The frankness of the response deflated the politician.

Like it or not, some people, consultants included, view public meetings as an opportunity to grandstand and present their own agendas. Some people just like to inflame. It is important to extinguish the inflammatory comments and not be provoked into saying something you do not want to say or digressing into areas that have nothing to do with the presentation at hand. Beware of those who grandstand or provoke. More times than not there is an alternative agenda at play, and it is extremely difficult to understand every agenda. Attempt to remain focused on the task at hand.

Acknowledge the roles of the participants and attempt to understand how these roles will affect perception. Consultants working for a responsible party, especially a party with a less-than stellar reputation, may be shed in a negative light from the start. Consultants working for the community, local agency personnel or an aggrieved party are usually viewed as the "good guys." Constant or over-aggressive attacks on the good guys can promote the vilification of your position and client. Pay attention to human nature. Remember that personal biases pervade society and take active steps to avoid re-enforcing and sustaining preconceptions that some of the audience will bring to the meeting.

Public meetings are an opportunity to present information, advocate a position and discuss issues. If conducted in a cordial, truthful and respectful manner these meetings can be productive and informative. Alternatively, if information is presented in an arrogant, deceitful or disrespectful manner, the meetings can become confrontational, counter productive or even abusive. Keeping in mind the few truisms presented above can facilitate a productive meeting that will help you, your client and all of those involved in the process.

This article originally appeared in the June 2002 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 13, No. 6, p. 64.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.