USACE teaches ‘common understanding’ in Risk Communication Course

Published Dec. 26, 2013
WIESBADEN, Germany – Have you ever met with an irate colleague or client and felt the dialogue was headed in opposite directions? Worse yet, did you ever feel like the target in a verbal shooting gallery?

More than 20 project and program managers from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District learned about public involvement and strategies for overcoming such challenges during a four-day Risk Communication Course. It’s designed to strengthen stakeholder relationships, bonds and rapport while striving toward transparency, awareness and partnership. The session took place Dec. 3-6 and was led by a trio of instructors with diverse experience and backgrounds in public affairs and project management.

“Communication is a contact sport … [and] risk is what jeopardizes us from getting to our goals,” said instructor Torrie McAllister, the public affairs director for USACE South Pacific Division. “We have to manage that in order to complete these projects. That’s what this is all about. You’re putting people on a journey toward common understanding.”

Throughout the week, the group took part in team exercises and discussions centered on district projects and how to deal with difficult circumstances, should they arise. As part of each case study, students identified potential risks, crafted communication plans and developed key messages.

The district personnel also analyzed videos and situational vignettes. On the final morning, they showed off their refined aptitude while assuming various roles in a mock meeting with “stakeholders,” incorporating techniques such as active listening, nonverbal communication through body language and other “soft skills” aimed at working with different behavioral patterns.

Instructor Doris Marlin, a program manager at USACE headquarters in Washington, said the workshop goes beyond teaching the value of intercommunication. In the normal course of business and project execution, conflicts will arise through different interests and opinions. However, the concepts taught here can take the steam out of situations and keep them from escalating, she added.

“It’s recognizing that you all have a common goal. By understanding the limitations and frustrations of each other, you can get over those hurdles and produce more effectively,” she said. “You’re focusing on common solutions and how to achieve that goal, not on what went wrong and getting into a blame-or-ego mode. That just takes you nowhere.

“When you damage relationships today, that’s so long lasting. … In this environment of fiscal uncertainty, cutbacks and unknowns about what’s going to happen with the military, we need the best relationships we can possibly have.”

Europe District served as something of a test case for this version of the course, said instructor Nancy Sticht, a public affairs specialist at Jacksonville District. The plan is to present it in some form to classes across USACE.

“All these skills help us to be better communicators and achieve better understanding across the board,” she said. “It’s so gratifying to see how it’s being taken and tailored to specific groups. It really does prove that these skills are highly transferable, useful and beneficial to individuals and teams.”

McAllister said project managers, in particular, are highly focused on cost, schedule and scope. But communication comprises about 90 percent of their jobs.

“We’re trying to add a fourth leg to a three-legged stool,” she said. “Risk communication is especially helpful when you’re dealing with low-trust, high-stakes situations. We are always under fire because the work we do is so important. … How do we work through that with our customers and keep finding the alternatives to keep things moving?

“This can really help us improve our relationships with folks. That’s the benefit. Whatever the issue might be, you’ll have some ways to address those questions and engage your stakeholder and get focused on what you need to achieve.”

Emotional intelligence, effective leadership, cultural awareness in communication, empathy and values were among the course’s other key elements as the group explored ways to build bridges and skill sets.

All the theories place emphasis on increased planning. When applied properly, they can help anyone save relationships and resources, Marlin said.

“Project risk management is a way that truly saves money, saves time and is a solution to many of the difficult hurdles we all encounter as we execute our projects,” she said. “You can identify problems and the need for resolutions more quickly. You can avoid some of those problems that just blow up and take all of your time to control.”

When communicating risk, Sticht said, it’s always important to share information, conduct outreach and remain proactive. That leads to stronger decision-making.

“A little work upfront can save a whole lot of effort in the long run,” she told the class. “It can minimize cost and delay. You are able to avoid worst-case confrontations.”

The final-day meeting with “stakeholders” gave the Europe District project and program managers a chance to practice responses to tough questioning.

“A lot of the techniques and tactics that we learned … especially with the different dynamics from customers, are useful tools for us in our jobs and also on a personal level,” said Darren Walls, a project manager. “I thoroughly enjoyed the exercises and some of the practicals that we learned.”

Lisa Bobotas, the Department of Defense Dependents Schools program manager for the district, said it was a “great experience” and recommends the course for anyone who interacts with stakeholders.

“This class is something you can take away and use immediately,” she said. “Surprising things that we learned about ourselves and the other people we work with have given us essential tools to be able to deal with our customers every day – in any kind of environment – and be a lot better prepared to get our message across about our projects.”

McAllister has taught risk communication to USACE flood managers, emergency-response teams and other planners for about eight years. There’s nothing more important than alignment on message, she said.

“In today’s Corps of Engineers, our project managers and technical experts are who people really want to hear from,” she added. “I’m such a believer in the benefit, and I hope many will see this as part of their jobs.

“One communication misfiring can undo everything that’s already been said. You just introduced confusion. … Risk communication requires us all to be open, honest, genuine and sincere.”