Staging a new ACT

When we meet active, even hostile resistance, how can we begin to facilitate an effective conversation?

It was quite an angry voicemail message I received last Monday: “I WANT TO KNOW WHY YOU THINK I NEED DIVERSITY TRAINING! DON’T SEND ME ANY MORE!  THIS IS JUST A COMMUNIST…! I CAN’T EVEN TALK ABOUT IT!” And abruptly disconnected.

This was apparently in response to our recent notices about the PRPS diversity webinars by Mauricio Velásquez of the Diversity Training Group, which was sent out to all our members and a list of potential members. I can only hope he was in the latter category.

A couple of immediate thoughts came to me:

  • You didn’t tell me who you are, so I don’t know who to stop sending this to!
  • Perhaps he felt he was being singled out by our bulk email that customizes the greeting with a first name. (He wouldn’t be the first. Years ago at another agency, I had a board member who thought everything I wrote about improving leadership and relationships was about him, and resented me picking on him—until I explained that I always sent them to everyone. (“… Oh!”) He was then fine about it; although a bit embarrassed.)
  • Since many people are sensitive about their secret flaws, perhaps we smacked a nerve on this.
  • On the other hand, since he alluded to diversity training as being communistic, he’s likely affixed to quite a different perspective.
  • People naturally feel threatened and tend to react strongly when they feel they are losing power, prestige, control, influence, or elevated status to others who are different from them.
  • If I had been able to talk with him, I probably would have asked him why he was so angry, and perhaps worked a way out of a misunderstanding. Who knows? But since I couldn’t, I’m left to only guess why “diversity” rattled him so badly he had to rant on my voice mail. (A little later, our Communications Manager received an email with this in the subject line: “You can shove your diversity training you nowhere [sic]”.)

In these times of sociopolitical polarities, resistance to what we have to say shouldn’t surprise us. While those within our profession may largely hold these truths to be self-evident, our proclamations about the value of parks, their essential nature, social equity, equal access, and the need for increased funding (among many others), are not universally well-received.

All our advocacy needs to be supported by education, documentation, data, and sound reasoning. But even if we can make an unassailable case for our cause, our communication cannot begin to be effective until it becomes two-way, in an open exchange of ideas, perspectives, and other viewpoints, and both parties achieve better understanding—and perhaps transformed behaviors and policies. This is not a job for the faint of heart!

The same day I received that voice mail, the PRPS staff were engaged in a professional training centering on leadership types and communication styles. We all gained deeper insights about ourselves, and how to better understand each other. Even though we already work very well together, I found it very interesting that, out of the nine of us, we display eight different communication styles! And that’s among people who agree on a lot in common and even like each other!

Which brings us back to my angry caller, and the next time we meet active, even hostile, resistance. How can we even begin to facilitate an effective conversation?

I certainly don’t have all the answers (after all, I’m a recovering hothead myself!). But I will leave you with this valuable tool in the Communications Guide from the Government Alliance on Race & Equity (GARE). While it’s presented within the framework of racial equity, the technique can work in all areas of conflict. As you know, people who are fighting aren’t communicating. The acronym is ACT:

Affirm. Begin by affirming core values that your listener or audience shares with this effort. Reinforce the idea that we’re all in this together.

Counter. Explain the challenge, focusing on the institutional and structural drivers that have created and maintained racial inequity. Be explicit about race, contrasting reality with the vision and values you’ve shared. Use facts and stories to persuade your listener of the reality and importance of the problem.

Transform. Start with heart, reiterate that we’re all in this together, and offer your audience or listener a concrete step they can take or we can take together to transform our current reality into the vision we share.

If we continue to ACT, we can facilitate better communication with all those we serve.

Author: Tim Herd

PRPS CEO

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