At rather a young age, as a shy and awkward preteen, I read a book called ‘How to talk to anyone.’ It was aimed at adults, obviously, but I learnt things reading that book that I still use today. Developing relationships with people is something we do every day, unconsciously. By taking a conscious yet subtle approach to it, the relationship building is no longer a random process but something you have control over.
Working in marine conservation isn’t just about working with animals anymore, practitioners require non academics skills such as leadership, project management, writing and communication skills, and perhaps most importantly networking skills.
It is not what you know, but who you know.
A recent paper on surveys by conservation employers recognised that being able to break the “them vs us” barriers is as important as having a strong scientific background. This might even involve (professionally) embarrassing yourself in public by participating in karaoke (in Asian countries) or an evening socialising in a pub for effective conservation impact. Marine conservation is more reliant on this approach than terrestrial conservation as stakeholders are often less willing to be managed due to a history of poor marine management. By becoming a professional peer, the stakeholders are much more likely to cooperate with, and understand, your ideas, which makes you less reliant on their
By treating the new person like one of your friends you let the awkwardness slip away. Without being immediately over familiar, ask them about their day, their weekend, their plans for the evening. Develop the relationship by engaging them. Ask them current event questions, even if you know the answer.
Make basic assumptions on their emotions i.e. that they are looking forward to leaving work and express this in conversation. If they say they have had a busy day, reply with, ‘I bet you are looking forward to getting home’. This leaves them open to respond with how late they have to work or that their family life then takes over, or they have a night dive (in the world of marine conservation) and so the conversation continues…
In the Philippines, strangers will ask you very personal questions in rapid fire. They say ‘the more I know you, the more we are friends.’ So get to know people and initiate ‘no-agenda’ conversation.
By increasing your emotional intelligence you enable yourself to recognise emotion in others. Learning to read basic body language cues can tell you a lot about a person’s emotional state but also help you control yours and develop your ‘poker face’. Not showing emotion yourself can lead you to develop the relationship you need to for work while hiding whatever your real feelings are for that person.
Inability to maintain a professional poker face has recently been cited as a reason people have lost their jobs, so work on those facial muscles!
Feeding off their emotions allows you to tailor the conversation for them to relate to you. It allows you to show compassion, or boldness, or surprise. Mirror their emotions and the relationship develops. Reading emotions will also educate you to the times when conversation should not be attempted, if they are angry or tired. Come back later when the time is more convenient.
Most of all, give them your fullest attention and be present in the situation. Make eye contact, nod your head (to reaffirm positive intentions), mirror their body language and play to your subject’s immediate priorities. Most of all, listen to everything, including things that are not being said, especially when dealing with political situations.
In life as in golf, your ball can go far even with poor follow through, but it is doubtful it will reach your objective of landing on the green
Build the trust of the people you are interacting with. After a discussion with a ‘person of interest (POI)’ send them a text or email thanking them for their time, maybe include a question or topic that you didn’t speak about earlier to open further discussion and maintain communication channels. This also strokes the ego of the POI and makes them want to help you.
Follow through on the activities you said you would and make them aware of any new developments since the original conversation. Let them know you are trustworthy by letting them know you are doing your job. If you are unable to follow through, make them aware of the roadblocks, they may just have a solution!
Bullies react to weakness. The stakeholder may not physically bully you, but they may impose their opinion on you or state fallacies. This is especially true when dealing with large amounts of anecdotal evidence in the conservation industry. Do not mistake loud opinions for authority.
Surprise your enemy. Like the bully at school, strength responds to strength. If your stakeholder states fallacy or exaggerations, disagree with them. Not politically, actually say you disagree with them. This surprises them and makes them want to hear what you have to say, and that is where conservation impact begins. Just remember to be polite; it is OK to disagree, it is not OK to call someone a liar!
Be bold, and walk tall. Leaders become leaders for a reason! If you aren’t feeling confident, then fake it until you become it
Making small talk is hard, there is no two ways about it, and it is especially hard when you begin the conversation that first time and desperately try and find common ground so that you can deliver on your own personal objectives. It is hard, because in western culture we shy away from verbal contact to the point where is becomes taboo. But this is also just one aspect of communication skills that you should have in your conservation arsenal. Perhaps your strengths lay in scientific monitoring skills or report writing. Don’t get caught up in the small things. We can’t all be good at stakeholder engagement just play to your strengths.
CHALLENGE: Next time you ride a taxi or are standing in the bus queue, pipe up conversation even if it is only one line. We all have to start somewhere. Alternatively, wear something that makes people want to talk to you, a brooch or badge or do something that ignites conversation. I once met a marine environmental consultant on the London underground simply because I was struggling to open a can of beans! Try it, and see how it works for you.