One-by-one, sixteen local leaders from multiple neighboring rural communities, courageously, yet with some hesitancy, walked through the door of the community room. They did not know what to expect from this gathering. They didn’t even all know each other. The group, representing city councils, county commission, and economic development corporation, had been personally invited by the county-wide economic development director to hear from a special guest on the topic of how they could work better together to make their region stronger.
As each leader entered the room the smell of pizza greeted them, making them feel welcome. After some small talk while they ate their pizza, the local leaders were asked to sit down at the tables that had purposely been positioned into a large rectangle, so they could see each other. The meeting began with introductions and each of them shared why they chose to be a leader. The group was off to a great start, and after two swift hours of conversations in small groups and the large group, one of the local leaders said, “It seems to me that in a world of more communication tools than ever, we are so much worse at communicating with each other in our community. How can we improve this?”
This group of leaders is not the first to ask that question. But, what is holding them back from healthy, productive communication that has the potential to move them forward and make them stronger together? A few of the barriers that make communication hard, include: 1) Differing expectations, assumptions and perceptions; 2) Tendency to pick and choose what information is retained when a message is received; 3) Distractions; 4) Not asking for clarity; and 5) Failing to listen with curiosity.
Taking that first leap toward great communication in a community takes trust, determination, engagement, and accountability from everyone. Here are some ways to get started:
- Start small. With a core group of local leaders, agree to make communication a priority. Start by naming the old habits. Commit to listening to others, asking questions, building relationships, and then meeting regularly to report what has been learned.
- Build the capacity and confidence of local leaders by hosting generational leadership workshops for youth and adults together. There are many leadership books that can be a catalyst for these gatherings. At your first meeting consider asking: What does it mean to be a leader? How can you learn to lead? What do I need to do differently to become a better leader?
- Through a survey or focus group, monitor how people best receive communication in today’s environment. Then be willing to make some adjustments and try communication tools that support inclusive communication.
- Encourage participation from residents by asking them to share innovative ideas for the community in a dropbox that is placed at the gas station or bank. Then host community events where residents can pull an idea out of the box and have small group conversations to brainstorm what might be possible.
- Create one collaborative Media Strategy for the entire community. This might include a web-based community calendar with the churches, school, city, and community events or a common community brand and logo for the Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development, City, School.
At the end of the 2-hour gathering, the group of sixteen leaders from multiple communities agreed to begin meeting quarterly for communication check-ins and expand the group to include more elected officials and school leadership. Communication doesn’t have to be so hard in a small town, you just have to start by sitting around the table to listen, ask questions, learn and talk to each other. When this new habit is put into place, the discovery of how to work better together to make their region strong will happen.