Communication and interpersonal skills are very important for all planners to have, and are relevant whether you are dealing with colleagues, applicants, councillors or residents.
Communication: It has become all too easy to just communicate by email with people because you are under so much pressure and want an audit trail. Where possible, and appropriate, I would go and speak to colleagues, or pick up the phone to them or external stakeholders, and have an initial conversation. People often appreciate it as they can then have a proper discussion with you and it means that you have made a connection. It can also help to avoid the email ‘ping-pong conversation’ so is not as time consuming as you may think.
Empathy: Understanding someone else’s perspective is another interpersonal skill which is important for planners. One of the issues for development management officers when dealing with householder proposals is that whilst the biggest purchase anyone will make is buying their home, the second biggest is likely to be when they want to extend it. A lot of people will only see what floorspace they are going to get for their money, and what they see on the plans can be more than they realised they might get - until it hits planning.
I remember having a conversation with a couple who were upset that I had refused their application for an extension, and so I met them and asked them to imagine what it would be like if you were living next door to them and all you looked at from your lounge was a great big two-storey brick wall. They replied that they agreed, and that actually all they really wanted was an extra bedroom with an ensuite bathroom, as opposed to two extra bedrooms and a family bathroom!
I was lucky because in those days we had the capacity to have that sort of meeting, which may not be the case now. But the principle of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is still important when putting across your view, particularly if it’s over an element of possible conflict.
Dealing with situations of conflict: In situations of conflict, it is important to recognise that people are not necessarily having a go at you as an individual but you as a representative of the organisation. In the early part of my career, there were times when I got off the phone and felt upset about what people had said, but putting those conversations into the above context was one of the best bits of advice my colleagues gave me. That perspective is also important if you are going out and doing community events. Not always easy, I know, and it doesn’t mean that you should accept verbal abuse or unreasonable behaviour.
Listening: Listening is also a really important skill. Sometimes people just want to have a voice, and because of the way we work now and with the resource challenges we have, it’s becoming harder for people to have that voice, particularly as it can be difficult to be able to directly contact the person in the planning service that they need to speak to.
When it comes to community engagement events, sometimes people want to come because they feel they need to talk to someone and don’t know who to talk to. So quite often they can ask about things that aren’t related to the topic being discussed. But for me, you are the face of the council, so try not to say ‘I don’t know, I can’t help you’ - if at all possible, say ‘It’s not the area I work in but if you let me have your details I will try and find the right person to speak to and I will pass on your concerns and your contact details to them.’
It’s about trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and imagining how you would feel when, for example, you are put on hold and then find you are through to the wrong department.
So communication is a vital part of planning, and part of it is about striking a balance between projecting confidence but also empathy.
Nicky Linihan is communications officer and housing topic specialist at the Planning Officers Society and an independent planning consultant