A Community Engagement Strategy for Negotiating a Package of Community Benefits

Sit-Down with Key Protagonists


This stage arises when a breakdown occurs and meetings need to be suspended so that the leader and affected parties can sit down separately and off-line.

This stage arises when a breakdown occurs—of such major impact—that the meetings need to be suspended. Typically, two or perhaps three “camps” within the community become uneasy with one another’s perspectives or demands as the process unfolds. Sometimes, historical disputes might underlie the tension; at other times, differences evolve between parties as the meetings proceed.

If the disagreement flares beyond rational discussion, someone may simply walk out. The meeting may be halted if the facilitator determines that the meeting has become too unruly for further progress. If it comes to that, it is time for the facilitator and the affected parties to sit down away from the meeting. Sometimes it is helpful to involve elders or other influential members in these small group discussions.

This may take a single meeting or several. After adequate discussion, the facilitator encourages each contending party to understand the worldview of the others—not to persuade anyone that the other party’s view is “right,” but rather simply to accept the other party’s view as it is.

The goal is to address and sufficiently resolve the animosity between “warring camps” to bring them back to the table for further problem solving and negotiation.

  • Organize a process that allows each side to speak to the facilitator separately before resuming discussion with one another.
  • In separate meetings, encourage each group to think about itself—its own needs and its own worldview.
  • Apply techniques to help each party understand the other’s view, so that the differing worldviews are seen as having their own integrity.
  • Typically there is no ritual handshake, or apology, or expression of agreement with the other side. In community engagement processes, too much baggage is sometimes associated with those types of ritual. No joint session or formal declaration of understanding is necessary either.
  • In this divided process, there might be a temptation for the protagonists to strike a deal. It’s best to bring the dispute back to the larger group (hopefully, with substantially improved communication). The purpose for doing this work with the group as a whole rather than off-line is to avoid subverting the larger goal of developing the giveback package as a group. Most off-line negotiations involve making refinements in an element of a package—not in deciding whether an element becomes an accepted part of the package.
  • At the point when meeting summaries are sent out, if the process has been suspended, all participants are notified that no further meetings have yet been scheduled. It is important to be thoughtful about how to characterize the break so that undue embarrassment is not brought upon the protagonists. In general, it is better to be vague in print and allow clarification to be made informally. Rather than classic process minutes (noting the time the meeting was called to order and adjourned), meeting summaries can include a description of the meeting (organized by subject) without mention of the drama or group dynamics of the meeting.
  • With each transmittal of minutes (sent both to those who were and were not present) often goes an invitation to all participants to correct anything in the minutes that appears to be inaccurate. Often, no corrections are received. As meetings proceed, participants have to consolidate and compare for themselves the information and progress from one meeting to the next. A better format is to combine minutes of all meetings into one set so that they become cumulative and easier to follow.
  • When meetings are to resume, a message should be sent to all group members with a date and time for the next session. The communication does not refer to anything that happened between the protagonists; it simply indicates that “We will pick up where we left off.” Wording is something like, “Since our last meeting we have been working hard researching and gathering information on the various proposals. This information will be presented at a meeting on May xx.”
    The message can also contain a summary of the status of each proposal — that is, each proposed giveback—and an indication of which proposals will most likely be discussed at the next meeting. This gives the reader a sense of what will happen at the next meeting.

In one process, the planning team was surprised by the level of anger that arose. Two camps, representing different geographic sub-regions of the community, developed serious animosity toward one another. The primary energy was voiced through two individuals who stood up, pointed fingers, and made accusations. In reality, each was representing several other people who also attended but who spoke less.

Previously, both had been fine participants, engaged and appropriate, and yet one evening the tension rose and rose until their interactions escalated into a shouting match. The facilitator called an end to the meeting and suggested that the process be put “on pause” until further thinking could be done. At this point, no future meeting dates were set up; the process had come to a standstill. To move forward, the planning team set itself an initial goal of assessing what was really going on with the key protagonists. This led to the development of a hypothesis that the two camps had very different basic views of the world and they had two different senses of what was important to them.

One camp saw the world holistically and multi-generationally. Most residents had lived in their neighborhoods for generations. For them, long-term environmental benefits were the key to any agreement. The other camp was caught up in the day-to-day discomfort of their community living situation. (They were in a construction zone, living in urban sprawl, dealing with poor urban planning decisions.) Most of this group had only recently moved into this area. They needed discussions with the sponsor that addressed, “What can you do for my community today?” As the planning team saw it, the two camps’ very different worldviews had apparently hardened into deepening animosity as the meetings proceeded.

When the planning team proposed the sit-down with the group with the longer view, they contacted the elders of the group, not only the individual who had been so outspoken that evening. In this way, they achieved the support and understanding of the whole group behind the vocal participant.

The objective for resolving this standstill was to get the camp with the longer view to become more tolerant of the folks who had the urgent stresses on their lives. They did not initially see the validity of the other perspective, because they did not understand the deeper worldview of the group reacting to short-term stresses. Their initial reaction was that signing an agreement that had short-term remedies was offensive to them. To get them to understand the other worldview, the planning team sketched out two cartoons to illustrate the differences between perspectives. The facilitator then sat down, two or three times, with the key members of the group with the long-term view, and described “the picture” to them. This group gradually became willing to accept that the ultimate agreement would need to include short-term remedies as well as long-term remedies; the package had to include both.

The planning team then went to the second group, who threatened never to come back to the meetings. The planning team communicated to the second group that their worldview was now understood by the first group, that their views would be treated respectfully in future meetings, and that their needs would be addressed in the final agreement.

At the end of these conversations, the elders met with the other members of their own group and gained their support for what took place in the sit-down. Members of the planning team then also spoke directly with the most vocal participant to explain the rationale and reinforce the plan going forward.

Related Examples

Related Tools/Resources

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