Communicating with Governments

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Sitting on the plane back from the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta gives me time to reflect on the challenges that the world is facing, writes IABC UK Board member Marcie Shaoul.

This time the 53 Heads of Government from all over the Commonwealth, from Tuvalu to Tanzania, New Zealand, Botswana, Canada convened on the tiny walled and beautiful country of Malta to discuss the pressing matters of the Commonwealth for the next two years.

Notoriously at CHOGMs the country becomes locked down. The fringe events that happen in the wings, the Commonwealth Youth Forum, the People’s Forum, the Business Forum and for the first time the Women’s Forum are shunned by leaders as they sweep in for a two day retreat and a dinner with Her Majesty The Queen who is Head of the Commonwealth.

People Power

However since the controversial CHOGM in Sri Lanka in 2013, the world has continued to change. People power is increasing, reportage by the person on the street via social media is rife and the world and its leaders is having to sit up and listen. The civil society event, the Commonwealth People’s Forum, where NGOs gather and debate now not only feeds into the Foreign Ministers, but also engages with ministers in the run up to the biennial meeting.

But these events are seldom ground breaking. Whatever you think is on the agenda usually gets surpassed by current events, so in this case terrorism and climate change were the hot topics and planned interactions from young people, NGOs and women’s groups can be left floundering in the wings of the debate.

Flying people in from around the world to generate ideas is one thing, but the perception that they may be there to influence the agenda is a fallacy. If people want to communicate with their governments, they need to think smart about how they do that. Change doesn’t happen at one meeting, pressure is not always the best way to bring about change, and placards rarely make a difference.

Opening up debate

As a trained facilitator I often watch these events with a heavy heart. Knowing what they could achieve and watching what they don’t achieve is frustrating for the whole world. Demanding rarely makes people listen in an open-minded way, and locking intelligent and specialised people out of high level meetings causes them to rally. To my eyes this creates a non-productive log jam, out of which tenuous compromise is the only viable solution.

If governments opened up the process before the meeting to interact formally with groups to gain expert advice on the discussion topics (current affairs dependent) then they would be better informed and discussions could be streamlined.

And when lobby groups are invited to the table, demands should become discussions, conversations should be fuelled by people who are listening and responding, rather than those who are trying to say their piece. Fruitful conversations, common ground and alliances are what will change the world. Demands and ultimatums rarely do.

Marcie Shaoul is a senior facilitator in multi-stakeholder processes and has worked as an international civil servant specialising in areas of international concern. Prior to founding Communications for Development, Marcie was Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Communications at the Commonwealth.

 

Listening – in one ear and out the other…

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We all listen right?  We listen to Ted talks, we listen to the radio, we listen to our kids, our families and our friends. We listen to the people we work for, the people who work for us. But my question to you is, do we listen in the same way to all of these? Do our ears get bigger depending on how important the topic is for us? Do we HEAR what people are saying when they’re talking, or do we just pick out the bits that suit us?

It’s a complicated set of questions. Because I bet we would all say that most of the time we are really good listeners. That we have empathy and can really respond in a way that shows we’ve been tuned in. but do we? There has been loads of research done that says we pick out the bits we want to hear, the bits that are relevant to us. So when someone tells us something that is happening to them in their lives, we find the bit that is relevant to us. It makes sense right, it means we can relate to it, can understand what they’re saying in the context of ourselves. It is in fact what makes a big contribution to a conversation.

So why talk about listening?

Well, I think that there are many opportunities lost when we don’t really listen to people. I think that wars could be stopped, that religions can live together, that governments and people could realise they want the same things, but from different perspectives. I think that if we were able to listen, really listen, hear and not let our prejudices get in the way, that we might find ourselves living in calmer times, less bloody times, less prejudiced times.

When I look back over the last two decades I can mark very clearly times when listening has been key.

There are trite times, when I was a young and excitable music journalist having to really listen to what artists were saying about in the interviews to try and portray accurately whatever mystical message they were trying to get across. It’s really good training on how to listen when you have to report back what has been said, when you not only have to hear the words, but understand the essence of what people are trying to get across.

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