At Lakota, we pride ourselves on our community engagement and we work hard at it.  Phone calls, surveys, and digital input have their place, but nothing beats walking around and talking to peoplereal—and by this, I mean busy, opinionated, complex, and completely human —people. There are hidden issues at play, ranging from how we do (or don’t) invite people into the conversation, the language we use when we talk to them, and even the psychology of group decision-making, sometimes referred to as “behavioral economics.” In today’s world, old time “community engagement” definitely has to take it up a notch.


First, government has a bad track record in communicating, and as planners, we can suffer from the effects of this when we work on public projects. As Dave Meslin said in his TEDTalk titled “The Antidote to Apathy,” what we dismiss as public apathy is often the result of a system that “actively discourages engagement by constantly putting obstacles in our way.” He shows a typical municipal zoning notice full of legalese and but lacking clear information about how to learn more or get involved. There is no image of the proposed development and it is hard to even find the property address buried in the text.  Then he shows what an ad for Nike shoes would look like if it were approached in the same way. Let me give you the takeaway: with that ad, no one would be wearing Nikes. When we invite people to join in a community engagement process, let’s make things easy, not hard. Let’s make sure the invitation is inclusive. And let’s make participating a little more fun.


Second, we as planners often communicate too rationally. In his funny and insightful book Thank you for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs reminds us that real persuasion lies not only in the facts and figures of logic but also in character and emotion—we need what Aristotle called logos, ethos, and pathos. Dry resuscitations of fact ignore the essential values and concerns of real people and will not motivate them to productive action.

Instead, planners should be aware of rhetorical toolse. Here are some of the many practical suggestions in this fascinating book:

  • Control the tense. Arguments that use the past tense tend to focus on blame, and those that use the present tense tend to focus on values. Neither is much good in terms of moving forward, so change the argument to the future tense, the language of choice.
  • Recognize the emotions that move people to action. Shame, sorrow, and humility discourage action. As Heinrichs writes, tongue-in-cheek, “these feelings make people introspective. They draw a bath, listen to Billie Holiday, and feel sorry for themselves.” Joy, love, esteem, and compassion are more effective. But what really moves people to action is a sense of identification. Keep your eyes out for anger, patriotism, and emulation, as those are the emotions that “get an audience out of its seat.”
  • As Lincoln knew so well, when you need to change the mood, tell a story. Going on that narrative journey helps the audience to connect with you and to see themselves in the shoes of another.
  • Listen for the audience’s commonly-held beliefs or “commonplaces” and work from there. “The trick is to is to occupy the commonplace of politics, that Central Park of beliefs, and to make it the persuaders’ own turf.  You can’t pull people toward your opinion until you walk right into the middle of their beliefs. And if that fails, you have to change your goal—promote an opinion that lies a little farther into their territory, or suggest an action that is not so big a step.”

There’s a lot more in the book.  You’d be surprised for example, what Bluto in Animal House (“who’s with me?!?”) can teach us about rhetoric.

Third, we must try to understand how real people understand and act on what we communicate. The International Association for Public Participation (iap2), has a terrific training program that begins with the acknowledgment that “it’s not what our message does to the listener but what the listener does with our message that determines our success as communicators.” Many of us have been puzzled by how listeners understood what we thought was straight-forward information. There is a lot going on in the listener’s mind, including our human desire to interpret information in a way that will reassure our world view and make us feel comfortable and secure.

Recently I heard Cass Sunstein, Harvard law professor and well-known author on law and behavioral economics, deliver a lecture titled the “Divided States of America.” In it, he outlined some fascinating—and alarming—research on how real people hear information and use it in group decision-making. When the topic is controversial, and the public is polarized, things really get dicey. For example, when groups of like-minded people gather to deliberate a controversial topic, the group actually winds up with a more polarized view than the individual members began with.  when it comes to polarized issues.


arch suggesting that polarized groups are persuaded by someone who they see as surprising, maybe someone who was previously on their side of the divide but was converted. I’m also fascinated by the possibility of “nudging” more people into civic engagement.  The answer, in any event, lies in spreading out the conversation, including more people, and building better practices. Empathy and honest listening never go out of style. But even those of us in muddy shoes could do a whole lot better.