How to build trust in public engagements

Photo of hands on top of one another, with the text "How to build trust in your public engagements"

The challenge of building trust – especially online – is one that has come up very often in our conversations with public servants and engagement specialists. And partially as a result of the pandemic, trust has also become a big topic of discussion in our society at large.

Suzanne Hawkes – an accomplished facilitator, leadership trainer and management consultant with Convergence Strategies – shared some of her expertise on the topic in our recent Building Trust Online webinar.

While there are some key differences, there’s also a lot in common between online and offline engagements when it comes to trust – so much of this also applies to in-person engagements. “Many of the principles are the same,” Suzanne says.

The foundations of trust

No matter what kind of engagement you’re doing, there are some fundamental questions you need to clarify and answer first.

What is trust?

Suzanne (and the participants) identified at least three ways to define trust:

  • Accountability: Doing what you’re saying you’re going to do. However, you’re often not starting from a neutral place or blank slate. It’s important to take history and your organization’s track record into account. If groups have a legacy of historical distrust, it will take more than one engagement to shift that relationship.
  • Transparency: Being clear about your intentions and agenda, including the level of engagement and what influence (if any) participants have on the decision.
  • Vulnerability: Patrick Lencioni and others also define trust as people’s willingness to admit making mistakes and not knowing the answer. It may also include sharing feelings and emotions with the group.

Why are you engaging?

It may seem obvious, but what’s the purpose of your engagement? Is it to inform your residents, to get their feedback on a proposal, to consult them on a decision, or to collaborate on something? Is it a ‘token’ consultation, or one where real course correction is possible based on feedback? Take a step back and determine what the true intention of your engagement is.

Different types of decisions require different levels of engagement. For example, for “highly technical decisions like engineering problems,” says Suzanne, “simply informing, or even telling, is really appropriate.” Other more complex decisions, or ones requiring deeper buy-in and alignment from people, almost always benefit from more meaningful consultation - which takes more time and more resources.

The IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation may be helpful in determining what kind of engagement a decision requires.

When are you engaging?

Make sure to determine what level of engagement you plan to do early in the process. Building trust takes time – the more power you share with participants, the longer your engagement timeline is.

Additionally, make sure you’re clear with residents about what kind of engagement they’re participating in.

Who are you engaging?

Determine who (and who isn’t) coming to your engagement – ideally beforehand. Some things you may want to know about your participants include their social locations (e.g., race, gender, class), power and rank, accommodation needs, and spoken languages.

"Can we do any research or do we have any information about who’s coming prior to the engagement?” asks Suzanne.

Suzanne also considers stylistic differences when planning dialogues or other engagements. One method for doing this is the Interpersonal Leadership Styles (Stratton Consulting Inc). The ILS outlines 27 specific style preferences, but they fall into four broad categories:

“There's many more than these four, but these are four broad directions that we may see among a wide group of people in any engagement,” Suzanne says. “I want to make sure that whatever engagement we're doing actually accounts for all of these style preferences and that we incorporate dimensions that all of these folks are going to need to really build trust.”

If you can’t find out this information before the engagement, you might be able to do so at the start with a quick check-in, or overtime by engaging and listening to how people show up and interact. Regardless, it can be helpful to design engagements with all four broad style preferences in mind, in addition to accounting for differences related to power, privilege and social locations.

How to build trust

Before we dive into what building trust looks like in an engagement, it’s important to note that a lot of that work takes place well beforehand. “The actual engagement is only one slice of the bigger ecosystem of what that rebuilding [of trust] may look like,” Suzanne says.

Earn it as a leader

It’s important for leaders to model authenticity and vulnerability for participants in an engagement, as well as to pause and make space to listen.

“We know how to listen effectively,” says Suzanne. “But we rarely practise it.”

As an engagement facilitator, redistributing power is essential to ensure you hear from all the voices in the room.

“It’s essential we hear from those quieter voices,” Suzanne says. “So we can hear from the wisdom of the group and across those different [interpersonal leadership] styles.”

Marginalized voices in the room can be amplified by repeating and sometimes paraphrasing (only if that’s appropriate) what they said, and giving space to people you haven’t heard from.

While this may lead to conflict with people who are used to taking space, it’s also important to show you can hold tension, manage power dynamics, and manage conflict, should it arise. Doing so will start building trust, especially over the course of multiple engagements.

“There may be strong norms to avoid conflict and seek harmony in a group,” Suzanne says. “We need to show and prove that we can handle it and we’re not going to fall apart, if things get hot in the group, if there’s strong divergence and strong disagreement.”

Use breakouts

“Whenever we remain in a large group, we tend to be giving preferential treatment inadvertently to people who have more social power, more positional power or stylistically tend to dominate in large groups,” says Suzanne. “The only way to break that up and hear from the wisdom of the group is to use breakouts.”

She recommends no more than five people for digital breakout groups and no more than eight for in-person ones. She also tends to allot about 2-5 minutes of speaking time per person in those groups. For example, a breakout group of 3 people, would be allotted 6-15 minutes to have a decent, though brief, discussion.

Take temperature checks

Check-in with your engagement participants to get a sense of what the group wants and where the group is at. If you’re doing a virtual engagement, this can be done through chat, polls, word clouds – and even hand signals and drawings.

You can find even more tips and valuable info in the recording of our Building Trust Online webinar, along with further resources.

Want to know how Ethelo's team of engagement experts can help you build trust with your community? Schedule a free consultation with our team of engagement experts.

March 30th, 2022 | | 0 Comments