Stakeholder Therapy

This guest blog post was written by our colleague Louise Boatwright Vaughn  and as such, the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any member of Resolve Conservation.  We are always looking for guest writers and if you are interested in contributing, please send an email to contact@resolveconservation.com

 

Being a podcast junkie, I sometimes worry that my addiction is getting in the way of my life. I’ve noticed it’s harder to pay attention to conversations without theme music and I’ve started stalking Ira Glass online.  I clean a lot to justify the hours spent listening to the voices coming out of my smartphone. When my husband, with a note of intervention in his voice, tells me it’s getting late I ignore him and tune in to my current podcast of choice, Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin. As I listen to Dr. Perel, a renowned psychotherapist who records couples’ counseling sessions, tell her clients, “You can be right, or you can be married”, I nod in complete agreement. I pretty sure my husband is right, but it’s better for everybody if he just tucks his judgment away and returns to the living room.

We all want to be right because, usually, it’s to our benefit. It’s so satisfying when we think that we made the right investment, bought the right house, or made the right call at work. We ask ourselves, “am I making the right choice” to make sure that we are making the right choice. But there are times when it’s not about being right and while we know this in the logical part of our brains, wanting to be right is a hard habit to break. It’s even harder when working with people that you’re not invested in, are unknown, different, and hold dissimilar worldviews. Yet, this is what we ask of people when we bring together stakeholder groups, which is a common strategy used to shape environmental policies, regulations, and actions.

We are all stakeholders when it comes to our public lands, wildlife, and natural resources as they directly impact our economy, health, and wellbeing. But in the stakeholder process, we either choose representatives of our interests with the expectation they will advocate for us or they are selected by some other means. The history of the stakeholder process in the fields of environmental policy and natural resource management is, unsurprisingly, packed with many outrageous examples of stakeholder conflict. And although it’s easy to focus on the infamous, there are also examples of highly successful stakeholder processes yielding significant gains, especially when participants can get past the idea of being right and move towards the idea that you don’t always have to support one interest at the exclusion of another.

Years ago, I worked on a project to try and increase shorebird habitat at a National Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of shorebirds stopped at the refuge every year during their migration to fatten up and rest before they completed their journey further south. Part of the reason so many shorebirds used the area as a stopover site may be due to the wide expanse of salt flats on the refuge, which are great places for shorebirds as they tend to be calm, shallow areas filled with brine shrimp, the salty snack of the shorebird diet (a.k.a, nature’s Cheeto).

Part of my job was to help facilitate a stakeholder meeting to better understand what people wanted to achieve and how to go about it. People interested in shorebirds wanted to manage the hydrology on the salt flats to make sure there was enough shallow-water habitat and food to support the shorebirds. Another group was interested in harvesting salt from the flats and wanted to ensure they could continue to do so, as they had done for generations. It sounds so simple now, and in a sense it was, because management strategies for shorebirds and harvesting salt are fairly compatible. But at the time, there were people who had not been willing to sit in the same room as the other stakeholders for years. Coming up with salt flat management strategies was easy. Managing the relationships between people was hard.

I like to daydream about Esther Perel facilitating a stakeholder meeting. In my mind’s eye she interrupts someone as they attempt to climb on their verbal soapbox and says, “You can be right, or you can create a resilient shoreline to reduce flooding impacts – you choose”. As the participants interact outside of their “sessions”, one stakeholder mutters under his breath, “you can bet that’s coming up in stakeholder therapy, buddy.” But unfortunately, stakeholders in the realm of environmental policy and natural resource management are not facilitated by world renown psychotherapists with Belgian accents and it takes much longer than a one-hour podcast to build the trust required to understand you can serve an interest without excluding another. But when collaborative-based decision making does happen, it’s a powerful thing.

I’ve been a part of a lot of stakeholder meetings and I have never seen one person develop a perfect environmental policy, management strategy, or action plan by themselves. I have seen people disagree, argue, and ignore each other but as soon as someone was able to tap into their inner Esther and say, “I hear what you’re saying. I’ve noted it. Let’s move on”, the dialogue usually moved toward progress. We need lots of people with wildly different perspectives and opinions to be involved in creating a world capable of sustaining the resources we depend on. There will be conflict, disagreement, and frustration but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like all important relationships, we can be right or we can get something greater in return.