A policymaker and Legislative Committee Chair Rhonda Staats at Legislative Day 2019.
Conversations with elected officials in your community can build relationships, illustrate your experience to someone in a position to advocate change, and help find common ground to make a difference. Rhonda Staats, Council board member and Legislative Committee Chair, says she has built a valuable rapport with her state representative that benefits both of them.
Over time, she says, conversations may spark a new thought process, an alternative position on an issue, or a fresh approach to a task or problem. The six guidelines in this article can improve your influence with elected officials as you both consider how to move an issue forward.
Guideline 1: Bring a Win-Win Mindset.
Approaching the conversation with a win-win mindset is important because it fosters an attitude of collaboration. Making sure your mindset is in a positive place to begin with can improve the conversation, no matter the outcome.
“I always believe what I say is important and can make a difference,” Rhonda explains. “My words have an impact of some kind. I understand that my focus is public education, and not politics. I have one chance to make a first impression.”
Rhonda also warns that change is not likely to be immediate, and that your words may help toward victory in the future.
Guideline 2: Ask Open-Ended Questions to Learn What the Elected Official Already Knows.
Chances are good you are not the first person to approach an elected official about a particular issue. It is important to first understand what information they might already know by reviewing news reports and asking open-ended questions. Rhonda says she finds this helpful in conversations, before moving to her talking points.
“If asking a question of a legislator to open a conversation, make sure that it is phrased to provide opportunity for them to feel empowered to answer or add information,” she recommends. “I might say, ‘Tell me about…’ or, ‘I am interested to understand or know more about…’ It is not wise to ask a yes/no question that has no further possibility for additional reflection.”
Guideline 3: Pay Attention to Cues to Gage Interest Throughout the Conversation.
It is often helpful in any conversation to listen closely and bring your best people-reading skills. Silence or a flat response is the primary clue that a legislator or staffer is not interested in what you have to say.
“If a legislator or staff gives a friendly greeting, I know I have a better chance to make contact on a more personal level,” Rhonda observes. “If the greeting is perfunctory, I know it will be tough sledding. If I perceive that I am the only one talking, it is never good.”
Setting an intention to have an engaging conversation is vital.
“My goal,” Rhonda says, “is a friendly dialog, a two-way conversation which deepens understanding in both directions. An interested legislator will add their own ideas or experiences. Because every individual lives the human experience, there will always be points of connection resulting from a conversation. All contacts with a legislator build a relationship, so continue to engage early and often.”
Guideline 4: Change Direction When Necessary.
If the conversation seems to come to a halt, weigh the reason. It might be that the elected official is not interested, or that they already have enough knowledge to move beyond what you are saying, eager for the next point in the conversation. Depending on your instinct, move to the next point, take a new direction that might engage the legislator, or cordially bring the conversation to an end.
“Try your best to correctly perceive the other person’s response and level of interest,“ Rhonda advises. “Always strive to get off the stage before you have said too much, diluting your effectiveness.”
You will know it is time to change direction when:
- You are far along in the meeting and still talking about introductory points. Keep track of time spent versus time allotted to serve as a guide.
- You have run out of personal stories, statistics or generalizations to support your talking point.
- You believe that the legislator understands your position and there is nothing more to say.
- The elected official seems uninterested.
- The conversation stalls.
Guideline 5: Manage Your Emotions When Conversation Is Not Proceeding as Desired.
It can be disappointing or frustrating when a conversation does not go the way you hoped it would. Learning how to recognize your emotional reaction and taking deep breaths to calm yourself will help you remain in control. Rhonda remembers conversations that did not go as planned and always tries to take a collaborative tack.
“My first responsibility is an attempt to get to a sharing place where we may find a bit of common ground,” she explains. “I try never to lose the reason and importance of why I am having the conversation, and keep my focus on the message.”
Rhonda stays on message by drawing the elected official back to the main points. For instance, a legislator might tell her Wisconsin’s transportation concerns will diminish due to self-driving vehicles. Rhonda would follow up by asking what they are hearing about transportation from voters, since her goal is to keep the focus on transportation.
Guideline 6: Share Brief, Personal Stories to Make Your Point.
Stories help us connect to each other as people. By sharing an example of the effects of an issue, you bring real-life narrative to light. Rhonda suggests that personal stories be short – only a sentence or two. Be confident in the ability to tell your story.
“I have found it helpful to form a list in my mind so that I may offer the most appropriate story when needed,” Rhonda shares.
Rhonda’s most common examples are:
“(1) I have had to turn down a job because I did not have transportation.
(2) It takes me at least three days to attend a meeting in Madison if I take the bus. There are large areas of the state not available using public transportation.
(3) I list some pedestrian narrow escapes when crossing streets.
(4) I give a personal example of a time when I find a state web site inaccessible to my screen reading software.”
Using these guidelines will assist you in any conversation, especially those with elected officials. In addition, sending a thank you note and follow-up information can go a long way to foster trust and two-way communication that, in the end, may be a win-win for everyone.