A recent conversation with a neighbor taught me a few things about understanding. She and I usually disagree about almost everything—from politics to the meaning of life—but after two hours of talking one Saturday afternoon, we had a conversation that was “effective” from a communications standpoint. We not only came to understand what each other’s opinions were, but also why we had them and how we developed them. We even succeeded in changing each other’s minds a couple of times. In our cultural climate of sharp polarization, this felt like real progress.
One of six Essential Practices in Active Living By Design’s Community Action Model, Strategic Communication is a goal-driven method of communication that aligns messages and tactics with communities’ priorities and audiences’ values, recalibrates based on measurable results, and strives for an evolving, two-way dialogue. Meeting these challenges requires the ability to not only know the values and worldviews of intended audiences, but also the ability to create messages that resonate with them. Well-planned, purposeful, and reciprocal communication can help healthy community partnerships build quality relationships, shared commitment to action, and mutual understanding.
As I’ve reflected on the conversation with my neighbor, I noticed a few key reasons we were able to connect that are relevant for healthy community advocates and nonprofit communicators:
Neither of us were in a hurry that afternoon and were able to linger as our conversation intensified. I could say that we both made time to talk, but that wouldn’t accurately describe what a privilege it is to have time to devote just to connecting with another person.
In our work creating healthier communities, it’s important that we intentionally plan enough time for understanding our intended audiences, whether they comprise community members, elected officials, or business leaders. And understanding takes time. It’s difficult to develop true understanding of others—especially those whose views differ from ours—through soundbites and character limits. As you craft a strategic communications plan, build in up-front time for real conversations with community members and partners. Sometimes the discussions will be difficult. Sometimes they’ll go off-script. But without that commitment to the time and resources it takes for connection, you’ll miss insights that could impact and improve your work.
In other words, my neighbor and I didn’t enter the conversation attempting to persuade each other (partly because we’ve humorously established an “agree to disagree” truce). Instead, we had enough respect for and curiosity about the other person that we asked questions more often than we tried to prove a point.
How can we create messages that resonate our audiences’ worldviews if we don’t know what those world views are? Our assumptions about others can lead not just to miscommunication, but to ineffective decision making. And strategic communication doesn’t necessarily mean mapping out every detail of our messages in advance. There’s still room for the unexpected magic that happens when people try to understand each other. By asking more questions, especially when we disagree, we can better identify the narratives that frame others’ perspectives and effectively respond to them.
My neighbor is part of my community. Although we have stark differences in opinion, I trust that she’s not out to “get me.” I trust that she’s developed her worldview in an authentic way. I trust that she thinks the same of me. By trusting each other, we could talk honestly without fear of reprisal.
In communities with a history of social and structural injustices, trust may need to be built alongside the pursuit of mutual understanding. There may be tension in partnerships that include stakeholders across diverse disciplines, geographies, perspectives, and power hierarchies. Tension is often greatest with efforts to bridge differences across age, race, class, and culture. A strategic approach to communications recognizes that trust can be both an ingredient and a result of evolving, two-way dialogue. Active Living By Design’s resource Lessons for Leaders shares more insights about ongoing relationship building and how to communicate and connect with strategic intention.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my neighbor and I completely understand each other now, we’ve at least found common ground where before we had none. Next time I see her, I may even tell her I wrote this blog.
*Covey, S. R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: Free Press, 1989.