Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peats Sake: Communication Quandary

By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

The ancient Greek philosopher and sage Epictetus is credited as saying, “First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.” Yes, well, easier said than done. In a world where buzzwords abound that muddy even the simplest of terms such as “natural,” understanding the meaning of the words we use to communicate to agency partners, stakeholders and the general public can be a monumental challenge. As civilization has evolved by learning more and more about the world in which we live, we have also exponentially expanded our vocabulary, creating more and more words to describe new discoveries and ideas. Those of us who have jumped “down the rabbit hole” of professional specialties often feel like we’ve landed on an alien planet when we come up for air to communicate our findings and results to the larger population.

Effective communication is integral, however, to progress. The most important thing to remember when trying to communicate is that each of us as individuals understands the world as we see it through our own layers of personal experience, education, and culture. This means that a word can have multiple meanings to different people depending on their world-view and background. To illustrate this point, grab a partner and stand on different sides of a mirror – one to the left and one to the right – neither one of you should be directly in front of the mirror. The person on the left should be able to see the person on the right and vice versa. But neither one of you can see yourself. Because each of you is standing on a different side of the mirror, your perspective is different –what you actually see is totally different from the person next to you. Since neither of you can see what the other person sees, you have to depend on your communication abilities to describe what you are seeing.

This is why communication trainings and a communication strategy are so important for any agency or organization. I recently attended a regional meeting with wetland scientists who expressed their fears and frustrations with trying to find ways to communicate with other professionals such as engineers and consultants. One woman even said “I have no idea how to talk to consultants.” This needs to change. We cannot afford to stay hidden in our rabbit holes and enjoy in-depth conversations only with our other rabbit friends. The continued rapid rate of wetland losses in this country and the less than stellar record of wetland restoration efforts is an immense challenge that we need to contend with and we cannot do it alone. This challenge is exacerbated by rapid urbanization, agricultural expansion of cash crops, domestic energy production and climate change. The root of the problem and the solutions are diverse and complicated and require folks from all walks of life to help develop and implement solutions.

The most important part of any communication strategy is to clearly explain who, what, why and how. To do that effectively, you must know your audience (what motivates them?) and learn their language. For example, teenagers and seniors are a very different demographic and so the way in which they communicate is very different, too. You should adapt your presentations to the audience in order for your information to be understood. Stories, analogies, and visuals (e.g. spatial models, diagrams, and pictures) can be extremely useful for communicating complicated scenarios or findings. Use examples. Listen – communication is a two-way street. Paraphrase people’s questions to make sure you really understand what they are asking before you reply. If you are presenting your information to a physical audience, read their body language and look people in the eye when you address them. These recommendations may seem obvious but you would be surprised how many people never use them.

One of my favorite books for personal fulfillment, and which I use as a guide for how I communicate with others and conduct myself in the world, is “The Four Agreements.” The four agreements are these:

  • Be impeccable with your word
  • Don’t take anything personally
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Always do your best

As the deadline approaches for the release of raw data from the National Wetland Condition Assessment (NWCA), the Association of State Wetland Managers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others are preparing communication strategies so that the public can easily understand the data and findings. I believe if we follow these four agreements (as well as the basic recommendations outlined above) in our attempts to communicate the findings of the NWCA then we will be able to successfully communicate the status of our nation’s wetlands, develop broader support and create better strategies for wetland conservation and restoration. Once we are able to successfully communicate the who, the what, and the why, then we will be able to collectively develop and implement the how.

Here are some links for more information:

National Wetland Condition Assessment

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

ASWM’s Wetland Program Plans Handbook (with a chapter on Communication)

Water Words That Work

The Language of Conservation by David Metz and Lori Weigel (commissioned by the Nature Conservancy)

Wade Davis and the Language of Conservation

Communication Strategies by the U.S. EPA

Communication Skills for Conservation Professionals by Susan Kay Jacobson

Communication in Coalitions – Ohio State University Fact Sheet

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