Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jul-Aug 2018 issue

Message Matters: Interpersonal Communications—A Few Lessons for City Elected Officials

By Dave Bartholomay

I will never forget how my first City Council meetings became a nasty back and forth about a proposed housing development. After the third contentious meeting, I was walking to my car when a retired (and widely admired) councilmember who had supported my election as mayor asked if we could talk.

He told me that while he had no doubt I could win these skirmishes, he was very disappointed in me. He said he expected me to exercise more restraint, demonstrate better behavior, and bring a more positive leadership approach to the Council. As he walked away, I was shell-shocked, but I also realized he was right.

I’m a much better person for his pointed criticism. I changed how I communicate with my colleagues, and I quit seeing issues as win-lose propositions.

Now I admit to occasionally falling back to bad habits, but I am much more aware of how my words and actions can change a conversation for better or worse. And how much all of this can reflect poorly on my city, whose image I am elected to protect and improve.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned about interpersonal communications over the years.

Remember you were elected to represent your community, not simply present your own opinions.

The citizens didn’t elect a right-winger or a left-winger; they elected a neighbor who professes to care first and foremost about the community, and who wants to make it better. Residents may or may not favor the project or new ordinance being considered, but they expect you to be civil and fair as you work through it.

Every community wants and needs a good, rigorous discussion of the options, along with an opportunity for public participation, not just a clash of opinions by strong voices. A nasty back and forth with a council colleague or a squabble with the audience may get your juices going and make the front page of the local paper, but that’s not the sort of news story that moves your community forward.

Listen to learn, not just to respond.

This isn’t a battle between two lawyers on a TV show, jousting back and forth to score points. Try hard to listen better to your colleagues and residents, to take out any toxic language in their statements, and work to uncover their underlying concerns.

When they claim you are a “bleeding heart liberal,” reply that you appreciate that all projects need to be financially sound and realistic. When they claim you don’t care about the community because you favor shifting police services to the county sheriff, say that you are simply exploring options to slow rising public safety costs and to keep local taxes affordable.

Imagine the message sent throughout the community if you could find ways to effectively communicate differences, yet still work together in your own ways to improve your community.

Consider reaching out to those you struggle with to have a brief but important conversation.

It can happen on the way to the car after one of your council meetings or at a community event. Mention discreetly that sometimes it seems like the disagreements have become personal, and that you are going to try to change that.

Say that you appreciate there is a difference of opinion, but you are going to limit your attacks and to look for ways to better understand where he or she is coming from.

Try your best to hold your tongue and slow down your response, even if others won’t.

It does indeed “take two to tango,” and there may be times you could avoid taking the bait. Or consider enlisting a colleague to help you out by stepping up during the beginning of a clash to slow things down, to ask a few questions about the topic rather than letting it become personal. This gives you time to catch your breath and to be more careful in your responses.

Interpersonal communications are critical to the successful workings of a city council and a community. Start by increasing your own awareness of the impact of your actions, and then stretch yourself to improve for the sake of the community you are sworn to serve.

Dave Bartholomay is the mayor of Circle Pines and program coordinator with the Office of Collaboration and Dispute Resolution at the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services. Contact: dave.bartholomay@state.mn.us or (651) 539-1402.

Read the July-Aug 2018 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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