I went to my Town Council sponsored “Community Consultation” workshop this week, advertised as “Your chance to set the Vision for the new Town Planning Scheme”.
Being a professional facilitator of workshops and community consultations, who uses words and the syntax of words as tools of trade, I was reminded at the workshop of the ability to use careful language in a manufactured syntax to obtain a predetermined result.
The workshop was formatted as a scenario exercise or game. The first part of the game was set by a video presentation that showed a vibrant town centre and an explanation that in order to achieve such a vibrant town centre whilst in competition with other, nearby “attractive” shopping and cappuccino strip town centres, we needed to increase the population. We were then led to an exercise which asked us to prioritise four ways to increase population:-
1. Using the Town’s history and stories;
2. Encouraging “adventurous” out of the ordinary shops to open there;
3. Creating interesting public squares and spaces; and
4. Organising street events like markets and festivals.
This was an interesting exercise and everyone played the game by discussing and ranking the options into priorities. However it occurred to me that the language had set a syntax that relied on a pre-supposition.
We were playing the game to prioritise the ways to attract more people into the town centre to achieve a “vibrant” town centre. Yet no-one challenged the presuppositions that:-
1. We wanted a vibrant town centre as described;
2. We wanted to attract more people; and
3. The only way to get a vibrant town centre was to attract more people by using (only) one of these four ways.
Then, in the second exercise another use of language in a certain syntax, used to encourage the development of a consensus toward a pre-determined idea was used right in front of me. This was despite the meeting supposedly being an “open” community consultation to seek our views.
After having bought into the presupposition that we DID want to grow the population (after all we had prioritised the ways to do just that) the second exercise involved a “game” to grow the town centre by placing pieces that represented low level, mid-level and high rise commercial and residential development on a map. Our group duly discussed logical options and worked towards a vision we had described to ourselves.
In the middle of our discussions the senior consulting town planner came to our table and without introducing himself asked some pointed and directed questions about our choices. As he received one logical (but admittedly non-town-plannerish) reason after another, he asked more and more pointed questions that attempted to destroy our logic. The fact that he used his knowledge of town planning to direct our answers away from our vision was a deliberate act. The directed questions were phrased so as to refute our sense of reasoning until we agreed to make changes that satisfied him and he gradually reduced the intensity of the challenging questions, after which he walked away.
I observed this from the eye of a professional facilitator and noted that he only walked away after he had “persuaded” us to agree to his ideas. Someone less adroit at manipulating groups would have simply thought he had stopped by to help us by providing us with information that we had used to “improve” our thinking.
Thus a community consultation was subtly used to reinforce this consultant town planner’s predetermined view of development.
So in conclusion if you were on the side of the angels and were facilitating a workshop – strategic planning, community consultation, business decision – you need to be aware of the dangers of using language in particular syntaxes and creating word pictures for your audience.
If the town planner had wanted an open view, he would have asked open questions like “what do you see happening here in the next 20 years?” or “How do you balance the quality of services and facilities against the need to achieve sustainable incomes from growing population?”
As you facilitate group discussion, you do need to provide facts and information – as requested – and not stack information in such a way as to push the group towards a conclusion. A seemingly open question like “Why would you develop THAT street when there aren’t even any traffic lights at either end?” is designed to ridicule a group’s thinking and subtly push them away from that decision. Indeed, if you want to hold a community workshop and arrive at a pre-determined conclusion backed up by the appearance that the idea was coming from the floor, you do what this consulting town planner did:-
1. Set up the scene so that your first seemingly open question rests on a pre-supposition; and
2. Ask directed questions that seemingly provide information that actually refutes the thinking on the table.
At the end of the workshop the consultant can then legitimately say “the community agreed with increasing the population – in fact they chose the way to do it. And, they also decided to build high-rise in those streets – it was shown in the maps they produced.”