Listening to Neighbors and Getting Neighbors to Listen to You

Debra Stein

Sometimes it seems that the development process involves a lot of talking and not a lot of listening. While neighbors often accuse developers of ignoring their statements, they rarely seem to listen to developers' responses. There's a lot of talk and a lot of frustration but not a lot of real communication.

Four specific communication skills can improve the substance of your communication with citizens and increase the likelihood that they will listen to you: engaging in active listening, "reflecting back" neighbors' comments, using a push-pull series of assertive and cooperative statements, and using directed eye contact.

Active Listening:
When opposing parties try to communicate, they are frequently so wrapped up in delivering their own message that they fail to listen to the other side. Unless neighbors believe that you are paying close attention to them and listening to their concerns, they are likely to escalate the intensity and volume of their complaints until they are convinced you cannot possibly ignore them. Instead of planning what you are going to say when a citizen is finished talking, you should pay active attention to the speaker and listen to what is being said.

One critical aspect of active listening is providing nonverbal indications that you are paying attention. It is important to face the speaker squarely without slouching or leaning to the side. The closer you can sit to the audience, the closer is the perceived relationship between parties; sitting some distance from or above the audience on a platform suggests that you are either uninvolved or uninterested in the discussion. You might find it helpful to take brief notes while listening to neighbors, but aimless doodling is an obvious indication of misplaced interest.

Many developers are so eager to be involved in discussions that they interrupt and distract the speaker with constant questions and comments. This kind of listener is so keen to respond that the speaker never gets a chance to express his or her viewpoints. By contrast, active listening means that you don't distract the speaker from what he or she is trying to say. On the other hand, brief interjections interspersed throughout the conversation show the citizen that you are, in fact, paying close attention and want to hear more: "Uh-huh." "I see." "Really?"

You can also show interest in the discussion and encourage more communication by asking occasional questions. Questions such as "Can you explain that a bit more?" or "How did you come to that conclusion?" demonstrate your attention and effort to understand a neighbor's perspective.

Even when it seems that no one is paying attention to you, it is essential to continue listening actively to neighbors. Active listening behavior is contagious. Citizens who have been listened to respectfully tend to reciprocate when you speak.

"Reflect Back" What You Have Heard:
Simply attuning your ears to neighbors' complaints isn't enough. You must fully understand what is being said. Unless you convince community members that their interests are understood and respected as legitimate, neighbors will assume that anything you say is unresponsive to their concerns.

First of all, what exactly have you heard? No matter how rational or level-headed a citizen's statement may sound, all comments contain an emotional message as well as a substantive assertion or inquiry. The emotion may be obvious anger, hostility, or fear or a more subtle emotional need, interest, or concern.

Developers often make the crucial mistake of ignoring emotional needs and focusing solely on the substantive content of public comments. In fact, you can't make rational arguments to an irrational audience. When Mrs. Neighbor screams, "My kids are going to be killed crossing this street," she isn't looking for a complex and technically-justified explanation of the circumstances affecting intersection intensity and pedestrian risk. Initially, she is looking only for reassurance that her fears about her children's safety are understood and respected.

Before making any effort to address substantive assertions or to advance your own position, it is important to "reflect back" the comments and concerns you have heard. Use your own words to summarized your understanding of what the citizen believes or wants. By reflecting the underlying emotional need expressed by the neighbor, you show that you understand and respect community concerns and intend to address them. One scenario demonstrates how not to respond to citizen concerns.

Citizen: "Traffic is going to be rumbling past my windows night and day!"

Developer: "Were going to install sound walls to mitigate any traffic noise."

The developer's response ignored the citizen's feelings and instead focused on substance. When the developer tried to counter an emotional appeal with a fact-based response, the unhappy neighbor perceived that the developer was ignoring his or her concerns. Addressing only the substance of community concerns and ignoring citizen outrage is guaranteed to raise the level of hostility. The neighbor will walk away from this exchange more convinced than ever that the developer is insensitive to community needs.

A retake on this scenario might unfold as follows:

Citizen: "Traffic is going to rumble past my windows day and night!"

Developer: "You're worried that this project will ruin the peace and quiet of the neighborhood."

In this case, the developer used his own words to reflect back the citizen's basic emotional needs. The developer not only demonstrated an understanding of the neighbor's feelings but also showed that he respected those needs and will try to meet them.

Acknowledge the outrage that neighbors feel: "I can see that you felt betrayed when we demolished the old theater without talking with you beforehand." Clearly, you don't have to agree with the citizen's emotional response, but you can show empathy and comprehension simply by restating the emotions expressed.

It isn't necessary to parrot back every word; instead, merely summarize the main concerns concisely and positively. It is also essential to resist the temptation to edit neighbors' words to reflect your own professional viewpoint more closely. For example, a citizen might express concern about "destruction of lush wetlands." While you might view that property as little more than a muddy pasture, you shouldn't distort citizens' statements to conform with what you think. If you try to recast the speaker's point of view radically, neighbors will believe that you've misunderstood their position. Misperceptions and misinformation should be corrected only after you've repeated what's been said and demonstrated that you've clearly heard and understood neighbors' concerns.

Pushing and Pulling to Agreement:
Once you've shown understanding of and respect for citizens' emotional needs by reflecting back what's been said, you can try to respond to the substantive content of their statements. Dialogue with community members follows a basic law of science: for every action, there is a reaction. If opponents push you and you push back, the situation can easily result in deadlock. For example,

Citizen: "Miller's Marsh should be preserved as public open space."

Developer: "That's my property, and I intend to build housing there."

Citizen: "That's what eminent domain laws are for! We'll have the country buy your property, even if you don't want to sell it!"

Developer: "Hah! See you in court!"

Productive dialogue with citizens should involve a balance of "push and pull" statements. Push statements respond to listeners' informational needs; they provide data and explanation as well as advocacy and opinion that can shift listeners' attitudes. Pull statements, on the other hand, respond to listeners' emotional needs for empathy, respect, understanding, assurance, and similar reactions. Pull statements acknowledge that you respect the community's emotional concerns, express your genuine interest in hearing residents' thoughts, and invite citizens to participate further in the decision-making process.

Angry opponents will expect you to react to their hostile push with a defensive push back. By opening your response with a pull, you'll make activists feel more emotionally secure and therefore more receptive to your comments. The frequent use of pull statements avoids an escalation in the level of hostility, encourages the other party to show reciprocal respect, and opens opportunities to push back with minimal resistance.

A return to the last example provides an illustration.

Citizen: "Miller's Marsh should be preserved as open space (PUSH)."

Developer: "You really value Miller's Marsh as a natural area (REFLECTIVE PULL). I certainly share your appreciation (PULL). Unfortunately, I can't afford to donate the entire property for public use (PUSH). Of course, if you think the county has adequate funds to buy the site, I'd be happy to work with you on that (PULL). But I doubt the county has enough money to pay full market value for the property (PUSH)."

The push-pull dynamic can help you control situations in which citizens interrupt and badger you with aggressive questions. In these uncomfortable situations, you may find that instead of presenting information in a cogent and structured way, you respond in a disorganized and reactive fashion by giving defensive answers to hostile questions. As the following illustrates, poor statements contain only push responses without any reflective summaries of emotional needs or any other pull statements:

Developer: "If you let me finish, I'll get to your question at the end of my presentation (PUSH)."

Good responses, however, acknowledge the legitimate right of citizens to ask questions and invite neighbors to endorse your presentation procedure. For example,

Developer: "There seem to be a lot of questions that need to be answered (REFLECTIVE PULL). I think this question and others will be answered in my brief presentation (PUSH), but, if not, I'll come right back to you to make certain I answer that clearly (PULL)."

Eye Contact with a Crowd:
It's critical to maintain appropriate eye contact with neighbors regardless of how many citizens you're facing at any one time. Though Americans are taught that it's polite to look into the eyes of listeners during intimate conversations, speakers addressing larger groups tend to avoid personal eye contact. The speaker stands in front of the audience and quickly scans the crowd, never glancing for more than a second at any one face and rarely looking any individual directly in the eye. The speaker comes across as nervous, distant, and insincere.

Personal eye contact should be maintained irrespective of audience size. Select one listener at a time from the crowd; look closely at that person for two or three seconds while making a complete point. Only after you've fully expressed an idea should you shift eye contact to a different audience member. A presentation with controlled eye contact might work as follows:

Developer: (MAKE PERSONAL EYE CONTACT) "Thank you for inviting me to talk with your group about Vista Highlands (SHIFT EYE CONTACT) . I'd like to give you a quick overview of our plans (SHIFT EYE CONTACT), hear your criticisms and ideas (SHIFT EYE CONTACT), and answer any questions (SHIFT EYE CONTACT)."

Directed eye contact reinforces your messages and keeps all listeners on their toes in the event that you focus on them next. Citizens will quickly note that you're treating them as individuals and not as a mob. Therefore, they'll be more likely to see you as a sincere and caring individual rather than as a remote adversary or faceless villain. Relaxed, focused eye contact shows that you are genuine and not afraid to interact with neighbors on a personal level.

Most of us aren't used to using such communication skills as active listening, reflecting back, pushing and pulling, or directed eye contact. These techniques may at first seem a bit difficult and awkward to master, but they can--with practice and commitment--be helpful tools in winning community support for your projects.