By Gabriele Bammer
What skills should every researcher involved in stakeholder engagement seek to cultivate? What key tools for engaging stakeholders should they be familiar with?
In the next two blog posts, I present key skills and tools that are essential for engaging with stakeholders. Understanding these skills can help teams decide who would be best among their members to be responsible for stakeholder engagement. Those involved in stakeholder engagement can also work to strengthen these skills to underpin other useful methods such as surveys, interviews, focus groups and participatory modelling.
This blog post presents skills involved in listening and dialogue. The next presents tools for generating ideas and reaching agreement.
Listening to understand
Key to stakeholder engagement through consultation, involvement, collaboration or support is being able to listen to stakeholders in order to understand their perspectives, concerns and suggestions, as well as to tease out what is most important to them. This requires cultivating a number of interconnected skills:
- Openness, which involves having an open mind and a willingness to accommodate multiple perspectives and ways of communicating them by a diverse range of participants.
- Respect, which involves being curious and actively engaging with the views and feelings of others. It means going beyond hierarchies of knowledge and stereotypes to appreciate different ways of knowing, including experience-based knowledge.
- Suspending automatic response, judgment and certainty, which requires countering and delaying reactions that are automatic for most people, namely thinking of a response while the other is talking, rushing to judgement and projecting your own view of the world onto the speaker. Instead it requires:
- focusing on learning rather than persuading or resolving
- delaying interpretation and judgment until you fully understand what the other person is saying
- using the opportunity to question your own assumptions and ways of seeing.
- Building a safe space, which involves creating an environment where participants have enough trust to feel comfortable in speaking openly about all aspects of the problem that are important to them. There is no one way to do this and it rests to a large extent on stakeholder perceptions of the integrity of the researchers and their ability to maintain confidentiality.
- Accurate documenting, which involves transparently writing down the stakeholders’ views, so that they can see that they have been understood. This can be done in real time on paper or electronically, or by providing transcripts of audio- or video- recordings. The key aspect is that the stakeholders can see what is being documented and clarify or change it when necessary.
Four kinds of dialogue
In engaging with stakeholders, it can be helpful to understand different ways of participating in and managing conversations. A useful framework considers the following four kinds of dialogue, which can be seen as a sequence of greater engagement and increasing difficulty requiring greater commitment and skills:
- Serial monologue, which involves turn-taking to present one’s own perspective.
- Engaged monologue, which is the exchange of perspectives.
- Reflective dialogue, which is a deeper form of exchange, seeking to learn about the perspectives of others and to find common ground.
- Generative dialogue, which goes deeper again to create new ideas. It builds on common ground to tackle and take advantage of persistent misunderstanding and disagreement. It requires those involved to stay engaged even when levels of tension are high in order to identify and discuss sources of incomprehension. This opens the potential for new insights and learning. “What are we missing here?” is a useful question to ask in such dialogue.
All forms of dialogue require the researchers involved to have skills in listening, as well as the capacity to explain the research in ways that stakeholders with a range of perspectives can understand. Whether the dialogue can get to reflective and generative levels also depends on the skills of the stakeholders involved and how much they are prepared to invest in the process.
Reflective dialogue requires empathy and the capacity to inquire to find out why others think as they do. If also requires self-reflexivity, that is cultivating awareness of―and the ability to constructively address―thoughts, emotions and actions generated by the dialogue. Generative dialogue, which is an advanced skill, additionally requires the capacity to tolerate conflict, confusion and complexity. It requires patience and optimism in order to delay the gratification of achieving an outcome.
Involving, collaborating with and supporting stakeholders will be more effective when reflective dialogue is brought to play. Long-term collaborations can benefit from generative dialogue, especially when they are tackling major changes and grappling with power differences.
Anything to add?
Particularly welcome are examples of how you have used basic listening and dialogue skills in stakeholder engagement.
If you are new to stakeholder engagement, is there anything else on basic listening and dialogue skills that would be useful?
If you have engaged with stakeholders in your research, what would you add to the basic listening skills presented above? Do you have information to share on specifics of the dialogue skills? Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out in your engagement work? Do you have lessons from experience to share?
Sources and references:
The section on listening to understand was adapted from work published by Oliver Escobar on public dialogue and deliberation. The section on four kinds of dialogue was adapted from a blog post by Rebecca Freeth and Liz Clarke on interdisciplinary collaboration. All of these authors, in turn, drew on the work of others, which is cited in the references below.
Escobar, O. (2011). Public Dialogue and Deliberation: A Communication Perspective for Public Engagement Practitioners. Edinburgh Beltane, Beacon for Public Engagement, Edinburgh, UK. (Online – open access e-booklet): https://i2s.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Public_Dialogue_and_Deliberation._Oliver_Escobar_2011_reprinted_2012.pdf (PDF 25.7MB)
Freeth, R. and Clarke, L. (2018). ‘Skilful conversations for integration’, Integration and Implementation Insights blog post. (Online): https://i2insights.org/2018/11/06/skilful-integration-conversations/
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.
The Stakeholder Engagement Primer comprises the following blog posts:
1 a. Why a primer? b. Defining stakeholders (October 14, 2021)
2. Identifying stakeholders (October 21, 2021)
3. Selecting stakeholders (October 28, 2021)
4. Options for engagement (November 4, 2021)
5. Choosing engagement options (November 11, 2021)
6. Making engagement effective (November 18, 2021)
This blog post:
7. Listening and dialogue (November 25, 2021)