• WisBusiness

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Wendy Riemann: Advantageous Advocacy: Agree to disagree

A funny cartoon in The New Yorker last week featured two siblings yelling at each other, "You're a big, fat liar." "No, you're a big fat liar!" With the mom telling the dad, "You're the one who said, 'Let them watch the debates, it will be educational.'"

When we feel passionately about a topic, we can easily succumb to our emotions. It is why some families avoid discussing politics at the holiday table and why some Facebook friends won't engage in conversations about social issues online.

Groups traveling to the nation's capital to advocate for their cause are often filled with great energy and inspiring passion. They researched an issue and solutions, and are eager to bring about positive change.

Meeting with a staff person who does not share the group's opinion can be disheartening. Yet, as infuriating as that may be, and regardless of how right group members think they are, or how much someone pays in taxes, it is NOT appropriate to yell in a meeting. It is not professional. It does not benefit the cause. It diminishes the message. It often demonstrates an inflated ego with a lack of control; and quite frankly, it makes the person and the group look more like bullies and jerks rather than advocates an office wants as partners.

In my advocacy research, I surveyed high-level staff in dozens of Capitol Hill offices. Staff are accustomed to emotional constituents - it comes with the job. However, while infrequent, more than 50 percent of staff surveyed experienced being yelled at in a constituent meeting at levels far beyond a verbal disagreement.

Not one found the yelling productive or helpful. Several felt threatened.

In response, many staffers said they would never meet with that group again. Others said any future meeting would likely be delegated to a lower-level staff person. Neither of these outcomes is helpful in moving a cause forward.

Staff, are just that, staff. They are moms and dads, friends and relatives. Most are overworked, underpaid, and entered public service to make the world a better place.

So, don't shoot the messenger. Express your views, but do not make personal attacks, yell, or threaten. Find a way to agree to disagree.

That can actually be easier than expected because most elected officials have a voting record. If a group does its proper homework before a meeting, they should have facts and a general idea of where an official already stands on the issue. This knowledge is helpful in managing a group's expectations, setting a meeting goal - which may perhaps just be getting someone from against an issue to neutral - and remaining calm. Do not take staff asking questions or pointing out alternative facts and statistics as a personal attack. Listening to those comments can sometimes provide a better understanding of where the office stands and why, and may even lead to an opening for a group to calmly correct inaccurate information.

Since a group may need this office in the future, it is good to remember that there is some truth to the adage that you catch more flies with honey.

-- Riemann is president of 1492 Communications, a consulting firm. She can be reached at: wendy@1492communications.com.

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