A night about your town

Allan Parker at Tooraweenah on June 27

Next Crop News
Behavioural scientist Allan Parker demonstrates how community meeting conversations can be done better while at Molong in March. Tooraweenah will host its initial meeting on June 27, from 6.30pm.

Behavioural scientist Allan Parker demonstrates how community meeting conversations can be done better while at Molong in March. Tooraweenah will host its initial meeting on June 27, from 6.30pm.


Allan Parker explains sensitive conversations and our country town The Next Crop forums.


Have you ever wondered why some discussions leave you feeling understood and as if you have achieved something, while others might have made you wonder why you bothered?

Town meetings and public hearings are a prime example of where distrust is often created or exacerbated when people don't feel they have been heard, and the impression given by those running the meeting is they will do as they please.

The country towns so far involved in the community meetings The Land has helped organise as part of this year's The Next Crop initiative are getting a taste of how such community events can be run more effectively for everyone, thanks to the skills of behavioural scientist and negotiation specialist, Allan Parker.

The name, The Next Crop, was used for last year's series of community forums The Land held at eight country towns across NSW.

Those forums were designed to discover good ideas and what options rural communities had available to improve their situation, which included steps to identify and attract the next lot of new businesses, residents, or skilled labour, hence the name The Next Crop.

The first of this year's country town meetings, which follow on from last year's forums (but run to a different format), have so far been held at Molong, Glen Innes and Yass.

The initial Tooraweenah meeting was postponed and will now run at 6.30pm, June 27, at the Country Women's Association of NSW hall.

Those who attend are in for somewhat of a different experience to the normal town meeting.

Mr Parker is big on how to have effective, sensitive conversations - a skill in which many of us are lacking, hence we often find ourselves in debate or argument, instead of agreement.

Mr Parker says people need to better understand the huge problem we all create ourselves by having no clue that what we are asking and the way we ask has a big determining impact on the receivers' response.

The first skill is to know when to "stop, pause, breathe and think", he says, as this puts us in a position where we can consider what we need to ask.

"It is so dangerously simple, that we very much underestimate its importance," he said.

"Amazingly, this moves us out of out our reactive, auto-pilot brain, into our frontal lobe, and allows dopamine to transmit in the pre-frontal cortex, which is where our higher order executive brain function occurs - oxygen is a requirement for this."

It is so dangerously simple, that we very much underestimate its importance - Allan Parker, Peak Performance Development

The basics of this skill, along with what questions people should ask, is central to Mr Parker's process.

He said the broad "W" and "H" questions, such as "what" and "how" were an important next step.

"That will most reliably get the other person speaking, as there is no definitive response required. It provides choice to the person answering and is most likely to create rapport," Mr Parker said.

"If you ask 'what' questions, they stimulate conceptual thinking, where as 'how' questions stimulate concrete, action-oriented responses. If they are asked with less that eight words, that will keep the personal unconscious bias out of the question."

He said confirming the question was also extremely important, as it was the only question that could be asked where "yes" was a reliable answer.

"So what you're saying is 'abc' .... have I got it correct - have I heard you properly? Have I understood that?," he said, as an example.

"If you have listened well and repeat it back, the other person has evidence that you have heard, and is likely to feel heard and understood. No other question does this.

"It is very rare that we get disagreement out of these two types of questions. We need to ask these much more if we are going to find, or create agreement and common ground."

This was in contrast to questions which took the conversation toward debate, or argument, often resulting in disagreement.

"This could be a literal statement with the inflection of a question... 'and you think that's a good idea?'," he said.

"Your not serious? That's the best you can do? That's hardly acceptable, is it? Don't you think it would be a good idea to....".

He said an alternative question would be "would you like to do it, or will I?", or, "Is it best now, or later?".

By asking the question in that way, it provided a choice, even if that choice was restricted.

Double barrell or complex questions also posed problems.

He said this might sound something like "I need to ask you what you are doing about strategy B and how that is impacting on the per head cost and the flow-on impact to our market share, given our current cash flow, where do you sit with all that.......?"

"We are asking all of these and have no clue that the question structure has a very big determining impact on the receiver's response, or worse, their reaction," Mr Parker said.

Bringing rural communities together in a way that people can develop an understanding and agree on what is important for their future can be tricky.

The meetings held so far were all different, but "very productive", Mr Parker said, while also remarking on the solid participation - Glen Innes fielding over 40 and Molong about 100 people.

The details for the next meetings at Molong, Glen Innes and Yass will be published at a later date.

  • Email amanda.carnegie@planning.nsw.gov.au to RSVP for Tooraweenah.

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