Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Scoping Meeting as American High Context Culture

     Recently I had the pleasure of participating in scoping meetings for some planned projects at work.  The meetings were being held to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) as we are implementing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  They were open house style events wherein the public could come and see our presentations, ask questions, and hopefully provide us with their concerns. My role was to staff the historic preservation display, or in the silly jargon of my profession—the “Cultural Resources” display.  What I observed in the whole process was that these meetings and the preparation for them was very much a high context communication process.

     NEPA and similar laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Clean Air Act of 1963, were enacted during the Fourth Awakening, an era of strongly blended Apollonian and Dionysian ethoses.  These laws have strong commitments to analytical research done by qualified professionals (Apollonian abstraction and meritocracy) and to public interaction (Dionysian social engagement).  In theory, the public is to have a say in the process and the outcome, and they can file suits against outcomes.  In practice, the proponents of projects usually get their way, although there are many cases where theory worked out well. These laws have all been amended numerous times with the general trend toward increasing public interaction and contact (increasing Dionysian values).  Apollonian modernists were happy and capable to provide clean water but it takes a Dionysian impulse to get the public informed via notices telling them that, yes, the water is safe and clean to drink.

     As part of the preparation for the meetings we published Public Notices in local and regional newspapers, and even discussed posting notices in local grocery stores (don’t know if that was actually done).  Additionally, we mailed invitations to all local, state, and federal elected officials in the area, to several state and federal regulatory agencies, to several Non Governmental Organizations (such as the Nature Conservancy, etc.), to several Native American tribal nations, to historical societies and museums, and to anyone else that may have an interest in the piece of ground planned for development.

     The day before the meetings we had an 8 hour training session called Risk Communication Training that was put on by Katz and Associates. Here, we obsessed over what we would say and do while in the meetings; and, we were coached on what possible questions we may get and how to handle them.  We learned that we had roles to play and that we were to “stay in our lane,” meaning, don’t try to answer something outside of our own area of expertise. And, that from the moment the first member of the public walks in, we are all on stage. In the terms I have been using on this blog—in the Context of the scoping meeting I needed to be aware of that big Context at all times and be competent in and stay in my own Text of historic preservation.

     Katz and Associates is a public relations firm and they are full bore high context communicators. I guess they are members of the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) as they gave us a copy of the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum, a matrix of Increasing Level of Public Impact, that states we are to Inform > Consult > Involve > Collaborate > Empower the public.

     I don’t have space to cover all their training material but I’ll offer a taste. We were given the usual Power Point presentation with a notebook of slides and other handouts.  Our Training Objectives were:

Understand why public involvement is important
-- Input from public leads to better decision making
-- Public involvement process leads to greater understanding
Gain understanding of environmental risk communication
-- Identify principles and “mind set”
-- Apply principles to the process to build trust and credibility
Develop better communication skills for dealing with public
-- Learn how to demonstrate empathy
-- Practice active listening skills
-- Learn how to answer easy and hard questions
-- Develop skills to handle hostile situations

We spent much time discussing empathy and active listening as they are the most effective tools in building trust and credibility.  I realized that the Apollonian gives information and assumes that intelligent people will make rational conclusions--a bad assumption.  The Dionysian is focused on empathic communication, genuinely hearing what others have to say and responding to them in honest fashion.

     From an anthropological perspective Scoping Meetings are public ceremonies, no different than weddings, funerals, graduations, parades, and trade shows.  While we had published our EIS notice in the Federal Register, as required, the Scoping Meetings allowed the public to put faces to faceless bureaucracy.  Several did come:  adjacent land owners expressed concerns; local politicians asked many questions; a reporter wrote up the event and the regional paper published it.  We were successful.

     And, maybe our 8 hour vigil was some kind of ritual separation prior to our coming out.  We were anointed with the words and motions of high context public communication.

     It is not a temporary thing.  There will be more meetings.  We’ll be off to the local tribes, on their turf, to get grilled, many times over.  Looking back at my modernism days, I know we used to just ignore all that.  Obviously, we can’t anymore. Dionysus is in control.  Now, if only the tribes would stop calling us linear thinkers…

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