Courageous conversations: be a hippo or an elephant?

August 16, 2013 —This week I had an insightful conversation with an executive at a major public relations firm. We talked about clients who, when it comes to communications, tend to be risk averse. That is, they seem to believe in a meat-and-potatoes approach to their corporate communications, a sort of “let’s-just-do-the-basics-and-hope-for-the-best” approach when a situation may call for something more adventurous and, therefore, beneficial.


Image courtesy of RTP411 /

It’s a familiar dilemma, particularly in sectors where other forms of risk management have been elevated to gospel. I’m thinking, for instance, of the energy sector. There, decision-makers tend to place a high value on measuring risk and putting in place strategies to mitigate it. A lot of the risk mitigation revolves, understandably, around safety issues or environmental concerns. No one in an energy company will fool around with decisions that place lives or the environment in peril. It’s a mindset that has generally served the sector well: caution, risk aversion, building on experience, not getting too far ahead of peers.

But it’s a mindset that doesn’t always fit with the needs of communications, particularly when communications professionals can see the many advantages of, for example, taking a bolder route to build engagement around a project. In the energy business there is often an “us-versus-them” mentality. Industry professionals dismiss critics as people who do not understand the complexity of their business and cannot appreciate the lengths to which they go to preserve safety and the environment. Everyone knows, though, that there are no easy answers to our energy challenge; that is, to provide clean, reliable, cheap, and safe oil, natural gas, or electricity to all of us. Any decision about how to proceed with extraction or generation, transmission, and/or final delivery involves trade-offs with no one getting everything they view ideally as desirable.


Image courtesy of Tom Curtis /

What is needed is what has been referred to as  “courageous conversations”, not just between industry leaders and communications professionals but between industry leaders and those questioning their decisions. Communicators have a key role to play in showing the energy industry that it needs to have these courageous conversations with ALL stakeholders. Everyone has to approach the process in the spirit of the African proverb about the hippo and the elephant. The hippo has a big mouth but tiny ears, while the elephant has huge ears and a small mouth. When exchanging points of view, we need to be elephants, not hippos. Another proverb says we are given two ears and one mouth and they should be used in that proportion.

Active and continuous listening is essential for understanding. And understanding other points of view, empathy if you will, is essential for a company or a leader to move forward successfully with projects. During these conversations you will not like everything you hear. But you may well learn something along the way, at least how “the other side” views your project and how it weights the costs and benefits. With that awareness, you can appreciate concerns, respond to them, and maybe, just maybe, turn a corner on engaging with stakeholders for your benefit and theirs.



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