It is Tuesday afternoon at Council, much like any other. An email arrives.


72pt Times New Roman. Red. Following this surprise introduction are multiple paragraphs of emotional outrage.

We build resilience to these situations after a time, but we are all only human. Being on the receiving end of these kinds of communications, again and again, can just plain get you down.

In emotionally charged engagement projects rumours and hearsay spread through local communities like wildfire (in the absence of information, misinformation flourishes people!), but that is a whole other blog post. I would instead like to briefly dwell on the changing nature of communications in engagement projects today.

A conversation includes far more than just words. Emphasis, body language and facial expression (to name just a few things) also play a vital role in how we communicate and more importantly how we emotionally interpret information.

By being a step removed from the communications receiver, does the writer feel a step removed from being accountable for their words?

There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the depersonalisation and de-emotionalisation (yes I made that word up) associated with electronic text based communications has led to a significant shift in people’s communication behaviours. SMS, forums and email even have their own languages associated with them these days. The potential for misinterpretation, instant nature and permanency of electronic communications can sometimes get us into trouble.

Back to “take your consultation and shove it!” So how does one deal with being on the receiving end of these troll like communications?

My advice is, personalise it!

1. Don’t reply to the email

An escalating emotional email ping pong match will generally only to grow the tension. Email communications leave too much space areas for misinterpretation and possibly fuel outrage.

2. Ring them up

When you call someone you are a person, no longer a faceless official. You are also demonstrating that you genuinely want to understand the issue at hand and the reasons behind the emotion. Personalised contact will often take the heat out of a charged situation.

3. Have a conversation

A conversation is a two way exchange of information, more often than not a polite one. In my experience emotional emails are often due to misunderstanding and misinformation. Take the time to discuss real project information. Perhaps it is you with the misinformation and misunderstanding.

4. Develop the relationship

Motivated people are of great value to an engagement project. An outspoken person can become your key local community liaison or even your greatest project advocate. Fostering good relationships with community members is a much underrated mutually beneficial scenario. Social capital is a beautiful thing!

Thank you for listening!

Valli works in Local Government as a Community Engagement Coordinator. She is a recently retired rollergirl and believes that: “In order to fly, all one must do is simply miss the ground” (Douglas Adams).


  • Megan September 28, 2013 - 10:09 am Reply

    Excellent article Valli – so true! I’ve also found that when I go “offline” and personal, the whole tone of the argument completely changes and a whole new respect and credibility develops as a result. Sometimes it’s just because someone either doesn’t fully understand the bigger picture or feels they are not understood – and this is worked out much better in person. I vote we ban emails as an engagement too (or just anyway) completely!

    Good work 🙂

  • Barbara September 30, 2013 - 12:17 am Reply

    Great blog Valli and great picture. Yes, it is all about relationships.

  • Valli September 30, 2013 - 9:04 am Reply

    Cheers Megan. This personalised approach is definitely my favourite style of engagement. With a cup of tea. At the kitchen table. Perfect!

  • Helen September 30, 2013 - 11:15 am Reply

    Great advice that’s worked for me too.
    I’m also a big fan of the “Hello, my name is________, what’s yours?” with a big smile and a hand extended for a shake at the doorway of any face to face activity. I think it serves as a really powerful reminder that you’re not a threat and you are a human being – especially in situations where there is a risk of people walking in the door with some of their angry bags.

  • Andrew September 30, 2013 - 11:42 am Reply

    Nice post Valli. I have found the local cafe is by far a better office than the one I’m currently sat in for aiding situations like this. As a facilitator of traditional engagement methods I find that need to understand a person/s first to aid the issues or comments they have, your point 4, is often far more powerful in consultation than a quick survey sent out to 100s of people. An argument for quality not quantity which often emails, sms and other electrical based comms methods fall in to.

  • WENDY SARKISSIAN October 10, 2013 - 12:05 pm Reply

    HI Valli:

    I agree with this post.

    That’s one reason I use the “Energy Wheel” to “take the temperature” of communities. If we are going to work with the energy that’s there, we need to know what it’s like. If it’s Cool Negative, our strategies — and even our listening responses — will be different from those we’d use to address “Hot Positive”.

    For the Energy Wheel, see: “Kitchen Table Sustainability”, chapter 7, pp. 173-174.

    Or email me and I’ll happily email it back.

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