active listening

Make Time Your Most Valuable Ally

In managing a complex, challenging issue, time can be your ally or your enemy. Make time your ally with disciplined anticipation, avoiding surprising and strong first impressions.

In managing a complex, challenging issue, time can be your ally or your enemy. Make time your ally with disciplined anticipation, avoiding surprising and strong first impressions.

A client recently asked what is the most important factor in effectively managing a challenging issue. Without a doubt, the answer is time.

Time can be a friend or an enemy. Time can be on your side or an advantage for your opposition.

Because timing is so crucial, these actions take on greater significance:

Anticipation

How to prepare for and respond to a crisis and handle reputation management in difficult times. Cautionary tales and words of advice from our quarter-century in the business. 

How to prepare for and respond to a crisis and handle reputation management in difficult times. Cautionary tales and words of advice from our quarter-century in the business. 

Anticipating an issue can yield valuable time to develop a response, test messages, prepare materials and make initial contacts.

Anticipation cannot be a random act. Sensing an early wind of an emerging issue requires a disciplined approach of active listening. You need to read traditional media and tune in to alternative media where your detractors may congregate. Keep an eye on the New York Times bestseller list, which is a telling guide to what people are reading and consequently talking about. The same goes for issue-oriented movies that can create a pulse of interest in an issue sparked by a Hollywood star.

Surprise

Making a surprise announcement can be a disarming tactic. It also can be a destabilizing one.

Generally speaking, catching people by surprise is not a good thing. Your supporters don’t like being surprised. Surprising skeptics can reinforce their skepticism. Opponents can turn surprise announcements into launchpads for counteroffensives.

Using time wisely means not resorting to surprise for effect. You can be more intentional, even methodical in your decision-making, message development and advance outreach. The people you want to impress will the first to know, not the last.

First Impression

First impressions are the ones that usually stick and can influence how people view an issue as it evolves. Making a great first impression – and being the first to make an impression – is the greatest reward that time can give.

Major brands work hard on new product rollouts to make a great first impression, which can affect buy decisions. The same holds true on issues management. Making the first impression is a huge advantage in ultimately persuading people to your point of view.

When you tell your story first, and do so credibly, which can mean including third-party validation, you have your best shot at winning the day. When opponents tell their story first and you must respond defensively, your chances of prevailing diminish. It’s not a lost cause, but it often is an uphill battle.

Being first and being thoughtful and convincing is only possible if you have time and steward your time well.

Time is and always has been the greatest home field advantage. Never cede it to the visiting team.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Claiming the Early-Start Advantage

An early start is the main advantage project opponents enjoy, but they can squander that advantage by trying to perfect their plan, push through a project or rely on the element of surprise.

An early start is the main advantage project opponents enjoy, but they can squander that advantage by trying to perfect their plan, push through a project or rely on the element of surprise.

Those who launch big projects or campaigns have one advantage – an early start. After that, the advantage slides over to opponents, who have become more organized, clever and dedicated. 

Starting early allows project proponents to listen and adapt their project to counter, eliminate or minimize opposition claims. It also allows proponents to create the first, positive impression of a project.

One of the key rules of marketing is being first to market. That principle holds true in public affairs, as well. Telling your story first is better than trying to tell your story through a tangled opposition narrative.

Despite the obvious advantage of starting early, many proponents dilly dally, usually to perfect “their plan.” However, rolling out a “perfect plan” is often the wrong strategy because it says you have the answers, regardless of the questions. 

People like to be heard, even if their comments don’t result in massive changes in already engineered plans. Many times, though, citizen questions and concerns – and even sharp barbs by opponents – can expose weaknesses or oversights in a plan. The worst kind of oversight is a small adjustment or addition that could accomplish a longstanding community goal, which would be a large selling point.

Instead of concentrating on your project plan, devote energy first to project benefits. Speaking in terms of benefits sends a different vibe than listing all the marvelous features contained in the plan. It signals the community you have considered their needs and interests. The actual plan may not be much different, but community members will have the chance to see the project through a different, bigger lens.

Engaging neighbors, community leaders and opponents takes time, so an early start is essential to carrying out an engagement process. Careful, active listening is required to hear concerns and tease out opportunities for common ground, then translate that common ground into a revised plan that neutralizes the main core of opposition. 

The fear that community engagement would slow down a project is understandable, but it overlooks the delays that can occur later when angry people look for and find procedural means to waylay a project, disrupting time-sensitive schedules, frequently with protracted legal action.

The most sensitive community engagement can’t guarantee to rout all opposition or prevent barricades to project progress. But it can invest a project with goodwill, brighter ideas and, if done imaginatively, unexpected allies.

A late start on community engagement, likewise, doesn’t guarantee failure or rancor. However, it usually sets up a win-lose scenario, rather than a win-win possibility.

Learning the Language of Listening

Learning to become a fluent listener is a lot like learning a new language. It takes dedication, practice and keeping off your smartphone to check for email messages.In learning any new language, you have to figure out where to begin. That is also true for learning the language of listening.

If you belong to the "I'm the Smartest Guy in the Room" club or feel obliged to explain why everyone else is wrong, then listening is probably a foreign language to you. 

Unfortunately, there isn't a RosettaStone tape to learn to listen. You have to learn on your own, often cold turkey.

Here are some suggestions for where to start:

Watch Good Listeners 

Just as some people learn a new language by watching TV shows in that language, you can learn a lot about listening by watching good listeners. You may not have to go very far to find them. They may be coworkers or your employees. Put them in charge of a brainstorming session and see how they guide a conversation and listen.