Effective Engagement Part 4: Perception is Reality - Effective Process Patterns

ABA Insights

Written by: Katherine Masleid-Rivard


More than buzz words, these are real concerns for any public project and ignoring them can create costly road blocks and detours. I’ve seen neglected stakeholders bring a project to a grinding halt; community members wondering if their leadership is even listening; and countless resources wasted on ineffective meetings.

While success at these goals may seem elusive, there are key steps and questions you can use to create a clear path forward.

I’ll walk through specific areas and the questions I ask to help achieve these goals in five posts:

Make sure you’ve read Part 1, 2 and 3 of this Effective Engagement series.

Part 4: Perception is Reality - Effective Process Patterns

As you move through a process your goals will evolve. Many people are surprised that effective engagement doesn’t just happen with one great meeting.

If you find yourself accused of not listening to stakeholders, you may be skipping a step in the journey. The secret is that perception is reality: if participants don’t feel heard, nothing else matters.

You may recall a time someone just kept telling you the same thing again and again. You wondered why they kept repeating themselves. Didn’t they think you understood? Don’t they believe you are listening? Do they just want to hear themselves talking?

Allow me to share an approach that can solve many of these possible challenges.

These steps borrow a page from the practice of Active Listening, a communication technique that confirms understanding before continuing the dialogue. These steps go further by also sharing the impact of dialogue on solutions and next steps.

When I’m working with stakeholders, I’ve learned that there is a pattern to effective engagement with four key steps in the journey.

  • Input: listening, a step of discovery.
    • Jane says, “The building entrance is hard to find. When people arrive, they don’t know where to go and don’t feel like they should be there.”
  • Confirm: Reflect what you heard back to the stakeholders. Make sure you understood what they meant.
    • You might respond “I heard you share several important things for the building to consider. Do these words reflect what you are saying? ‘Clear entry’ and ‘Welcoming’”
    • You may also present back a summary of earlier input and gather feedback and questions. Give stakeholders the opportunity to critique the summary and be open to refining it.
  • Critique: Share your draft solution. Show the stakeholders how you have used their input. Get their perspective on where refinement is needed. You may need to repeat this step, depending on how much refinement is needed.
    • “We heard that the building entry should be easy to find. Based on that, the entry is located on the corner, where it is easy to see when approaching from any direction.” In this example, you can see that I’ve shared both WHAT we did and WHY we did it. Stakeholders can see the impact their input has had on the solution.
    • Even when you cannot “make everyone happy” show how you balanced different values and prioritized what stakeholders said was the most important.
  • Review: Similar to the critique step, except now you are ready to finalize the solution for recommendation and approval.

By using these steps in combination with the different engagement formats, you’ll set up a pattern for effective engagement and even better, effective decision making.

I’ve built a bit of a cheat sheet that helps walk through all of these questions. Beyond the questions, it lays out a pattern of stakeholder decision making that I’ve found helpful.

Key takeaways:

Effective engagement requires deep listening and a process to close the loop. In this way you can ensure that you have the right information and engender the same confidence in everyone else.

So you’ve made a lot of headway in building a foundation for effective engagement, but now what? What do you do with all these great ideas? Stay tuned for my next post, when we discuss taking what you’ve learned and making it real.

Today’s post is part of an ongoing series by firm leaders intended to provide insight into key aspects of ABA’s practice. If you have any questions, comments, or experiences to share – please do so in the comments below. We would love to hear from you.

Posted September 21, 2022

Anderson Brulé Architects Updates

Subscribe and never miss a beat!