Community Engagement - Tips for conflict and hostile audiences

This post tackles a big, scary dilemma – conflict, outrage and emotion.  We’re often asked for advice around this topic, because it’s something that worries many people in the engagement space -  even experienced practitioners and facilitators.

Partly, this fear is underpinned by a lack of ‘tools’ or skills. So, we’re going to give you some tips to help you prepare for and/or work with conflict, outrage and emotion in a meaningful way. 

Because it’s a big, difficult topic, we’re going to address it in two parts:  Part one (this post) is about how to plan for it, and in part two (next month) we’ll talk about what to do if you walk into it unexpectedly.   

Today’s challenge:

Working with a hostile audience when emotions are high (planning and working with conflict, outrage and emotion).

7 Top tips: Preparing for likely OR expected conflict, outrage or emotion

Even when you know hostility is likely, and can plan for it, just the anticipation can be highly stressful. It’s normal to feel this way.  Most of us don’t enjoy conflict, and our ‘go-to’ reaction tends to be to avoid it at all costs.

However, a little healthy conflict is a positive part of meaningful engagement. And, to work with it effectively, you instead need to do the opposite of what your instincts are telling you, and embrace it. So here’s a few tips to help you do just that.

1. Address it head on

Don’t pretend (or hope) the problem doesn’t exist.  Your process needs to be planned around acknowledgement of the issue, not covering it up.

2. Know your audience

Who is participating and what are their needs, values and feelings?  Do some research and build an understanding of who is involved and what their expectations are.

3. Understand the drivers

What’s this really about? What’s led to this angst?  Build a contextual understanding - it’s difficult to acknowledge an issue when we don’t understand it.

4. Check-in in advance

Give participants an opportunity to express their frustrations or agendas prior to the day, or before the session begins. Not only does it allow people to decompress, it will give you a better understanding of what’s going on

5. Build in time up front

Build in plenty of time at the beginning of the process for people to express their views and frustrations.  People won’t hear any information while they are in an emotional state, and a common error is having too little time planned for this step and forcing people move on to quickly, or talking ‘at’ them before they’re ready.  To, this

 6. Address internal issues & set expectations

Ensure your decision makers and project team understand that conflict, emotion or outrage may be present, and what this means for the process.  Normalise how challenging this feel and ensure they don’t have unrealistic expectations about rushing or forcing the agenda. Remember that members of the organisation may also be outraged by the situation and this needs to be managed.

7. Up-skill yourself and your team

Become familiar with techniques for working with hostility and up-skill any anyone involved in the project.  Planning is the first step, but you’ll need to be ready to apply these skills when you’re in the room.   Check out part two of this two-part subscriber challenge series, which addresses these skills.

Reach out when you need to

Working with conflict, outrage and emotion is a specialist skill, and it always helps to have an experienced facilitator working with you and your participants.

Ensure that you don’t inflame an issue by placing unskilled staff in front of stakeholders or community members. Putting unprepared people in a conflict situation can not only lead to damaged relationships, it can also have a negative impact on individual employees and cause stress.

If you do need assistance, it pays to get in touch with a facilitator as early as possible to ensure they can work with you to plan the process effectively.

Further reading

 Peter Sandman is a world-renowned risk communication expert.  His website contains a whole host of resources and information around working with outrage and emotion.

The following case studies look at examples of how we’ve worked with conflict, outrage or emotion in the past:

·        Canberra Brickworks Precinct

·        Spring Creek Precinct Structure Plan

·        Dogs on Inverloch Beach

We’re working on a few new case studies in 2019, so keep an eye on our blog or subscribe to our newsletter r The Discussion to stay in the loop.


This challenge was put forward by a subscriber to our e-newsletter The Discussion. We enjoy supporting others to enhance their engagement practice. It’s part of our commitment to sharing learnings, and contributing to the practice of quality engagement. If you’d like us to respond to your biggest engagement challenge, simply subscribe and submit your dilemma – you never know, we might write about your challenge next!

Stay tuned – part two is coming soon!

Next month, we’ll publish part two of this two-part series – tips for working with unexpected conflict, outrage or emotion in the moment (when you walk into the room).

Over to you

Have you ever experienced a hostile audience?  Was it planned or unexpected?  We’d love to hear from you! Share your stories in the comments below.