When we begin discussions with someone about engagement we like to tell them the good and the bad: how the community can feel heard and unified when things go well, and how they can feel angry, frustrated, and divided when things go poorly. Both outcomes are valuable lessons, and both outcomes are widely common results for community engagement. Depending on time, budget, foresight, and humility or hubris, a well-intentioned project can have a negative result if these inputs are not carefully dialed in. Engagement is a mix of art and science, and the first impression you make on a community is an opportunity to show your true colors and intentions. Careful planning, building in the correct amount of time for Phase Zero, and listening to hear and learn are three ways to start your engagement off on the right note.

Build in time to listen – Like, REALLY listen. The old adage stands here: are you listening to hear, or are you waiting for your turn to speak? We learned fairly early on that an engagement project is made or broken by its first point of contact with the community. Community members are often (and rightfully) dubious of outsiders, especially those touting change and progress.

Be intentional –  Anyone who works with residents knows that they will quickly find the weaknesses in the best-laid plans. Maybe it’s the wisdom of the crowd, or maybe it’s the number of eyes staring at the same problem, but you can be sure that if you’ve been negligent or sloppy, you will get called out. Not only should your plan for engagement be logical and tidy, but it must be defensible.

Get ready to be humbled –  No one knows everything, but it’s very likely that a neighborhood resident knows more about their personal lived experience than you do–and that’s valuable! Go in knowing that you’re going to learn from people about how to do your job better.

Read the full article about using listening to foster deep engagement by Kiersten Mailler & Marisa Denker at FeedbackLabs.