Are you practicing condescending community engagement?

Condescending community engagement is rife in the public, private and third sectors. Before you launch into your next project, ask yourself “is the question we’re putting to the community just a little condescending?” Unfortunately, all too often, the answer is yes. Why?

Many years ago I hired a consultant on the recommendation of my boss. She was tall, smart, sophisticated, immensely experienced and knowledgeable, immaculately groomed, well spoken, and generally very impressive. So why did the community I was working with take an almost instant dislike to her?

The short answer is that they felt (and arguably were) condescended to.

As part of the project I was managing, we had established a very loose, open access, community reference group. It was a self-selected group of people who were generally passionate about the local area and keen to ensure it was developed in a way that didn’t destroy the local amenity. The area was semi-rural. The group members, were, for the most part, very “grounded”, “no bullshit” people. Former farmers, steel workers, small business owners, community activists. Almost all were property owners. There was one academic in the room, but he was there to observe, more than to participate. And there was one artist, who was the son of the local GP. I must admit that we rubbed each other up the wrong way. I think his sense of entitlement annoyed me, and my being from the government annoyed him!

We had been meeting once a month for many months to talk through, first their general issues of concern, and later the specific environmental, economic, social, and infrastructure issues that needed to be covered off to plan the development of the area. As part of that process, I had invited our various consultants to attend the reference group meetings and walk through their findings and recommendations.

To be clear, the group did not have decision-making authority, but the planning team (me and my small team) took the issues they raised very seriously and more often than not found ourselves acting as internal advocates for the issues they were raising. On the other hand, there was a lot of concern about issues that there didn’t need to be any concern about at all simply because of a lack of information and knowledge; hence the expert sessions.

The aim of the sessions was to give ordinary members of the community a chance to interrogate the work of the various technical experts personally, rather than through me and the team. There were some things we couldn’t explain adequately, there were other times when the reference group needed to hear something from the horses mouth.

It was into this context that our consultant was thrust.

She began by standing up at the front of our small(ish) meeting room. Mistake number one. Every other technical consultant had sat with the group members for a chat.

Then she began to lecture the group; I use the word lecture quite deliberately. I was quite taken aback, but not nearly as much as the group was. You could feel the mood change immediately.

Then people started asking questions, and things really turned pear-shaped. I can’t remember the specific question or the specific answer, but I distinctly remember that she started talking slower and slower, like she was talking to small children. This continued right up until one member of the group yelled from the back of the room, “STOP PATRONIZING US!” At which point our soon-to-be erstwhile consultant, looked a little stunned and proceeded to get very defensive.

It may not have been our worst meeting, but it certainly wasn’t one of the better ones. It took a while for everyone to recover and for us to rebuild trust in the process.

So, what was the general lesson from this episode?

There at least three different forms of condescension that I can think of.

1. Assuming Ignorance

condescending community engagement

There’s the condescension that comes with assuming the people you are working with aren’t smart enough to understand the issues, and that they have nothing of use to contribute to their understanding or the possible solutions. This issue of contextual, anecdotal knowledge being ignored by the professions has been explored at length in academic research on community engagement. This happens a lot.

2. Not Engaging In A Conversation

condescending community engagement

Even more condescending than this is assuming that your expertise is so profound that there is simply no need to have a conversation with your community – read, your clients – at all, because, magically, you know what is best for them. This the trap that our consultant fell into. She went with the intention of teaching, rather than conversing. It never entered her head that the process might be a conversation that involves equal part listening and talking. This happens a lot too.

3. Wasting Time

condescending community engagement

Then there’s the condescension that comes with framing the conversation so narrowly that the only issues left to explore are trivial and, therefore, a waste of everyone’s time. An example of this would be asking people to think about what colour the seats should be at a new railway station, rather than where that station should be to provide the maximum local benefit. This kind of condescension says, “your time doesn’t really matter”… “but been I’ve told that we need to ‘consult’ the community, so we’ll do this.” This also happens a lot.

The good news is that all of these forms of condescension can be avoided by starting from a point of mutual respect, entering conversations with the community with open ears, listening critically, asking lots of questions, and not dismissing anything out of hand without a very good reason.

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