Put Down the Tablet and Listen

By Shannon Bond

I sit in my share of meetings, and it has been a privilege to sit in on several public meetings at the EPA. Typically, my work involves integrating technology and social media into human workflows. What I have learned over time, however, is that there is no substitute for direct human interaction. Even if  we develop incredibly sophisticated virtual reality spaces, we will still have the need to meet face to face.

I admit that I was skeptical at my first large EPA listening session. What possible value could come from so many people sharing their opinions? That’s not to say that each person’s opinion doesn’t count; it does. We all have a voice and a need to be heard. But, my usual mindset is to focus on small productive teams that get things done. I shy away from committees and large working groups. I prefer deadlines and focus with specialized team members serving in meaningful roles.
The listening session had over 200 people in attendance. Each person was given several minutes to talk while a panel of EPA specialists listened. There were note takers, microphones, and sign language interpreters. Everyone in the crowd could hear; nobody was left out. The only rule was that the speakers were restrained to the same issue. The crowd was full of specialists, scientists, mothers, fathers, grandparents, kids and even a politician or two. Each person brought a strong belief or personal experience to the table.

When we watch the media, we are exposed to the simplification of these issues. When we do our own research and listen to the stakeholders involved, we find out that most issues are very complex. Climate change, sustainability, renewable energy and water conservation cannot be boiled down to a “for or against” mindset. There are too many affected parties, with varying if not competing interests. Solutions are complicated.

So how can this meeting possibly be productive, and not dissolve into a shouting match? The staff at the EPA showed me how. They put a lot of time into planning, and focused on listening instead of telling. I put aside my gadgets and focused. No Twitter reports, Facebook updates, news apps or RSS feeds. I simply watched the speakers sit down in front of the microphone, one after another. Through all of the personal stories, belief and scientific testimony given by real people, a complete picture of the issue began to take shape in front of me. I began to believe in the process.

At the end of the meeting, with my skepticism set aside, I had a clear idea of where I stood on the issue. I understood multiple sides, and respected them, even if I didn’t agree. More importantly, I remembered the value of direct experience through human interaction. As public servants, it’s important for us to interact with our stakeholders and the communities we strive to protect. By considering everyone’s point of view, we are better equipped to deal with both the ideological and practical challenges we are faced with. I will always be a technology advocate, but technology can never  replace the direct experience of human interaction.

Shannon Bond  is a multimedia production specialist with EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. He has served in a host of roles including military policeman, corrections officer, network operations specialist, photojournalist, broadcast specialist and public affairs superintendant.