- It’s ok to change your mind – Let participants know that it is expected their opinions will change as knowledge is acquired. Words uttered at the beginning of the process will not be thrown back at you later in the process. This simple procedure allows participants to think and speak freely without feeling the need to take a position on everything.
- Keep in touch – Communicate often and in detail. My monthly newsletters – banal as they are – were always appreciated. People like to be informed – especially that backroom information that you might want to keep to yourself. Avoid having a select group of insiders; make everyone feel they are inside the process. The benefits gained from releasing information outweigh the benefits from keeping it secret.
- Allow participants to influence the process – This is easy to achieve if you are willing to let go of your agenda and ego once-in-awhile. Collect and catalogue all comments and suggestions and make these public. Show how the process or instrument has been amended because of public comments. People will engage in a consultation process if they feel their input will make a difference.
- Achieve consensus – I never use voting or talk about voting. People generally understand that compromise is necessary and are willing to compromise if they feel their opinions are respected. I do not recognise ultimatums (eg: “this is a deal-breaker”) as they are a form of negative voting. I will suggest they are not helpful and ask the participant, “What do you think would be helpful for the process”?
- Be respectful – Obvious but not always easy for me as I am not patient by nature. Practice listening. Write notes in a meeting and read back the highlights at the close of the meeting. This gives participants an opportunity to help you with your notes and to feel their input has been captured. There are people who are difficult. I feel it is my job to get the best from everyone so I will spend extra effort to communicate with the difficult ones. Usually they just need the opportunity to be heard – they may have a history of being treated dismissively so do not dismiss their opinions (a hard one for me).
All of the above are common-sense suggestions for methods of gaining and keeping trust. A successful consultation relies on trust but it is one of those things like reputation: hard to gain and easy to lose. The literature talks about ‘building community’ but this is just jargon for trust.