Community Engagement is a Lot Like Parenting

by Tanya Zwahlen

​This weekend, my daughter, Claire, and I traveled to Kripalu, a yoga and retreat center in western Massachusetts, for a workshop on Mothering and Daughtering. The purpose of the three-day workshop, taught by Sil and Eliza Reynolds, was to work on our communication, so our relationship can grow stronger rather than weaker as my daughter enters her teen years. In addition to crafting, hiking, reading, eating, and meditating, Claire and I spent a lot of time talking about emotional intelligence, intuition, trust, and our favorite ways to spend time together.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Listen: If you are paying attention, if you are present, if you are talking to your kids, and more importantly if you are listening, you can navigate the teen years successfully. 
  2. Understand: Our kids need us to mirror and validate their emotions, and to be empathic. They need us to understand them.
  3. Set Expectations: They also need us to draw boundaries and hold them.
  4. Value: Children need to know that, no matter what, their parents love them and support them and value them.
  5. Don’t Expect Enlightenment: Mothers need support from other mothers/fathers/friends. Teens aren’t capable of providing any emotional support in return, so we should not hold that expectation. 

I could not help but draw connections between parenting and community engagement. Yes, I’m serious.

Think of it this way:

  1. Listen: ​If we pay attention to what we hear from the public, if we really listen, we can understand their issues.
  2. Understand: The public needs us to mirror their emotions, especially when they are strong, and to show empathy. They need to be assured that we understand their views.
  3. Set Expectations: They also need to know how decisions will be made and how their input will be used.
  4. Value: Even if they don’t agree with a design element, a program change or budgetary decision, stakeholders need to feel that they still hold a place in a project/neighborhood/city/democracy and that their opinions are important.
  5. Don’t Expect Enlightenment: As engagement professionals, we need to set aside our own beliefs and views about how cities should change and grow. If we argue or try to convince people how great roundabouts and bike lanes are, we will not gain trust. However, if we have set expectations about how decisions will be made and how input will be used (#3), and we don’t need to try and change anyone’s mind, we are more likely to build a meaningful relationship.

It turns out that many (most?) things in life are about communication and trust. Here is a photograph of my inspiration to communicate better. What’s yours?

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