27 September 2023

Consulting insults: How to avoid ‘tick the box’ consultation

Start the conversation

Michelle Gibbings says participants in meetings supposedly designed to seek community feedback often end up just being talked at by the organisers.

Have you ever been invited to a meeting or forum where the pretext was to be consulted or provide feedback, yet when you attend there is far more talking at you than listening to you?

I’ve seen this happen many times.

The intent to gather feedback may have been genuine and well intentioned, and yet the participants walk away scratching their head and wondering why they bothered attending because their concerns, ideas or insights weren’t heard.

When an organisation is running a change program or developing new ideas it knows the importance of getting feedback from impacted stakeholders — either internal or external to the organisation.

Leaders too say they want feedback from their team members, clients and stakeholders.

Yet often the process used doesn’t leave the participants feeling that they have been consulted or their ideas listened to.

Instead, they feel like they have been talked to as the forum is focused on a one-way transfer of information.

In these situations, typically one of two things is happening.

Veneer consultation:

Which is only being held for ‘window dressing’ and with no real desire to listen or engage.

Genuine consultation:

With a real desire to hear the concerns and engage, but the session is poorly structured and executed.

Veneer consultation is a shallow approach to stakeholder engagement, with none-to-limited opportunity to build long-lasting relationships.

This ‘tick a box’ approach may satisfy your ‘to do’ list, but it doesn’t achieve any buy-in.

If you genuinely want to consult, it’s critical to consider how the session is structured to ensure the most effective participation and gathering of ideas.

I’ve seen stakeholder forums titled ‘feedback’, ‘listening’ and ‘community consultation’.

In fact the majority of the session’s agenda is devoted to senior people in the organisation talking to the participants.

That’s not listening; that’s not seeking feedback.

Instead, what you are trying to do is to inform and perhaps to educate.

Perhaps you are thinking: “If I just explain this more. If they just hear what I have to say. If they just understand it more…then they won’t object.”

Sorry. It doesn’t work like that.

When people don’t trust you; when they are sceptical, or even just a bit unsure with concerns or questions, they need to feel and know they are being heard.

They want their voice to matter. They want to feel genuine involvement and connection.

They want the opportunity to put their ideas forward.

You don’t build support and buy-in when the focus is just on talking at a group of people.

What does genuine consultation look like?

The session’s agenda is fluid, which means that while it is outlined in advance, the agenda is open to being shifted and shaped by the participants on the day.

The timing of the session is structured around the participants’ needs.

At the start of the session you seek to uncover the participants’ hopes and expectations.

The workshop is well facilitated, and the facilitator does not have a stake in the outcome of the conversation-discussion.

The workshop is appropriately constructed and designed with activities to ensure there are a range of ways for people to share ideas and provide feedback.

This takes care of different communication styles and comfort levels in speaking up in a large group format.

The facilitator is adept at seeing and sensing what is being said and unsaid in the room and is actively seeking to surface ideas, insights and concerns.

This means everyone who attends feels like they have had the chance to participate and contribute.

A safe space is created for participants to share, debate and contribute to the content of the day.

As a result the facilitator and the leaders from the organisation do not shut down dissenting opinions and remain curious about all ideas presented.

The facilitator and organisational leaders listen empathetically and with compassion because they are seeking to understand what the participants need in a non-judgemental manner.

By doing this they acknowledge how all participants are feeling and are seeking to recognise what they need.

Sure, some of this can feel a little scary, particularly having an unstructured and non-fixed agenda.

However, this approach ensures you are far more likely to get the outcome you really need to help set your project and initiative up for success.

In the words of Winston Churchill: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

*Michelle Gibbings is the Melbourne-based founder of Change Meridian who works with leaders and teams to help them get fit for the future of work. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared atwww.changemeridian.com.au

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.