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February 10, 2006

Local government needs effective communication

By Jeri Marxman

"Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much." – Robert Greenleaf

Has it happened to you? In a discussion of a controversial issue where there are differing opinions and viewpoints, are your colleagues so busy expressing their own viewpoints that they don't listen to your opinions and suggestions?

Why is this? It occurs when the meeting switches from problem-solving to a win-lose competition. Effective communication is at the core of all productive relationships. If policies are to truly serve the public good, it is essential that all participants make a real effort to understand the issues from all perspectives. That means we all need to spend more time listening to each other and less time stating our own point of view.

How can we change this deeply ingrained habit of arguing and debating instead of building collaborative solutions? We begin by committing ourselves to working on solutions that meet all our needs. While this is easy to say, learning this new skill can be very difficult.

In most policy discussions, we begin by individually diagnosing "what the problem is" and then constructing a solution. Each of us comes to the meeting with "the" solution to the problem, and the meeting proceeds as a debate over these opposing solutions.

What's wrong with that? It may be that our view of the problem is different from others' view of the problem. When we are debating solutions we are not in agreement of what problem we are solving. By listening more effectively, we can first agree on the problem and the underlying causes of the problem. Then we can work on a solution.

- Jeri Marxman, U. of Illinois Extension Specialist, Public Policy

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