How to run an effective public meeting when dealing with people who have an agenda.

The other night I served as moderator for a panel discussion and audience Q&A that is part of a local organization’s efforts to update their comprehensive plan.  Like many planning organizations, this agency has had some ugly run-ins with a particular interest group, and they wanted someone to manage the meeting and keep the conversation on track.

I’ve been running public meetings and discussion groups and classrooms and focus groups and God knows what else for decades – I earned my stripes on that front long before I knew what a zoning code was.  So I agreed to help them out.

I’m a little more reluctant than a consultant probably should be about blowing my own horn, so the rest of this blog post sits a little uneasily with me, with all those “I’s” in there.  But, as staffers and Planning Commission members and participants on the panel came up to me afterward, it became clear to me that I had done certain things in the management of that meeting that might be more unexpected, less in line with usual practices, than I often assume when I am living inside my own mind.  So I did a little self-analysis, walking through the meeting and the choices that I made while moderating, and identified a few decisions that probably led to the meeting’s success.  So, here’s what I think I (and the agency) did right:

  • An outside moderator ain’t a bad idea.  As the outsider, I had a lot of aces up my sleeve.  Since I didn’t know any more than the broad outline of the previous confrontations, I could plead innocence (and get away with acting a little more innocent than I probably am).  I didn’t have any stake in the ground, so no one had any reason to accuse me of bias.  I didn’t know exactly who the potential troublemakers were, but I had a sense of where they were concentrated, so I could make sure that the question opportunities were spread around with little risk of specifically ignoring one person or another based on some history they had with the agency.

 

Most importantly, I could take a strong leadership role because I didn’t have to worry about offending anyone.  After all, when this is over, I am going home, people.   If I had been in the city I live in, with people I knew in the audience, I would have found myself in a very different situation.

 

  • Never let go of the microphone.  I almost never take public questions via a stand mic or podium in the front of the room.  I almost always go at it Phil Donohue-style – I wade as deep into the audience as the cords will let me and either hold the mic for speakers or repeat their questions over the sound system (which also allows you to rephrase – valuable if someone has an axe to grind and wants to talk about something that is off topic).   

 

I made the mistake with the first public question of giving the microphone to the guy (he was a lot taller than me), and I realized almost immediately that I had put us at risk of substituting a soapbox speech for a constructive question.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen.  The rest of the time, I went back to my usual modus operandi and told each person “that’s OK, I’ll just hold the mic for you.”  That makes it easier to control the sound quality, too.

 

  • Just because someone puts their hand up doesn’t mean you need to call on them.   We have this assumption from our days in school that the first one with the hand up is the one that should get to show off his or her knowledge — but we all know that teachers select who they will call on, and after a while the kid who knows all the answers doesn’t get called on anymore.  Only calling on that person wouldn’t do the rest of the students much good.  We don’t want to ignore people if we can help it, but a forum where we need to understand the cross-section of public opinion is not going to fill that purpose if we play by those elementary school rules.

 

It is crucial to cover the meeting space – both in terms of taking questions from all over the room, but also taking questions from people of different ages and genders.  I was very careful to select for both of those from the raised hands.   If I had simply stuck in the corner where the most hands went up, I would have both turned off the rest of the crowd and prevented us from getting a useful picture of the full range of public opinion.

 

  • If you don’t want a special interest to run your meeting, you must run it, you must control it yourself.  The room included several (I was told later that it was about 10) members of the special interest group that I described, and they clearly came with the intention of taking over the conversation.  I am not sure exactly what was on their agenda that night, but it was pretty clear that they wanted to turn it to the issues of interest to them, rather than the issues everyone else came to talk about, if they got half the chance.

 

I wasn’t going to give them that chance.

 

I chose which of the several raised hands from that group got to speak, just like I made that choice with everyone else.  I kept control of the mic (which meant I was sort of holding hands with one guy at one point – a little weird, but oh well),  and I made a point of restating a question that veered off onto a rant about a federal agency to how the local community can best cope with uncertainty over federal regulation impacts.

photo of Della and public speaker
Me and my new boyfriend…

 

If I had let them have their way, if I had not pulled the relevant element out of a largely off-topic question, the meeting would have degenerated into an unproductive verbal fight.  A moderator must keep that from happening.  In this case, controlling the situation required a pretty soft touch – but I have scolded confrontational or rude participants before.   Sometimes it is simply necessary for the good of everyone else in the room.  It is simply part of the job.

 

  • Never, never allow a special interest group to command all your attention.  If you focus on the people you are most worried about, you do a gross disservice – an insult, really – to the people who came to be part of a real conversation.

 

When I was a young teacher during my short education career, I learned pretty quickly that every class had three or four students who were inclined to “act out” – you know the type.  When you are the teacher, your instinct is to spend all your time trying to intervene with those kids – get them to pay attention, prevent them from doing something troublesome, whatever.   It’s like having an attention black hole in the back of the room.  But if you give into that instinct, that means that the 15 or 20 kids who weren’t acting out, who weren’t demanding your attention, get… next to nothing.  No wonder so many hate school.   And public meetings.

 

People who come to public meetings are taking precious time out of their lives.  They are choosing to come.  If we do not honor their contribution and commitment, if we instead let a disgruntled clique take over the classroom, we have done the same damage to our relationship with our residents as I did to the good students in the classroom when I ignored them in favor of the troublemakers.

 

What tricks of the trade do you use when moderating public meetings?  I’d love to hear your good ideas… after all, next time I might have to break out the brass knuckles.   Ya never know.

18 thoughts on “How to run an effective public meeting when dealing with people who have an agenda.”

  1. I stopped participating in public meetings long ago – because of that dynamic you describe. Sounds like you managed if wonderfully – and I do not doubt it took some bravery on your part!

  2. I am an urban design consultant and as you can imagine sometimes people get heated about redevelopment issues. In a City where I am currently working we recommended that a non-contributing building be removed to make way for a key public space. The implication was that this would happen when the current tenants moved on, but they assumed they would be evicted (in spite of reassurances to the contrary) and started a general anti-plan campaign including badmouthing the City administration. After discussion, the City put out a press release before the public meeting stating that they would never displace an important downtown business, and at the beginning of the meeting I stated that it was important to remember that the City was committed to downtown growth and to downtown business and that respectful conversation helped everyone to move forward. With the wind taken out of their sails, these local business owners were not a problem at the meeting.

  3. the microphone indeed is powerful/can be used to take over, so keeping control of it was a wise decision!

    Another thing I have done with groups where there is a potential for certain participants to take control is to present a list of guiding principles to follow during the discussion. These are basic etiquettes of conversation, which are good to remind folks of when engaging in public dialogue/debate. Participants can add points to the list, etc. and then the group on a whole agrees to adhere to the principles during the meeting. This allows the facilitator to remind individuals of the list if things go awry and offers participants ‘there for the right reasons’ assurances that a take over won’t (or at least is less likely to) happen.

  4. To add to Rebekah’s comment, I have at times stated “ground rules” prior to any discussion or at the beginning of the meeting. Reminding the folks of common courtesy and/or structure of debates and discussions. Much like parlimentary procedures, everyone understands in advance how to make their point, how to keep on point, when to yield to another, and so on. I find that the group self governs and is quick to remind their cohorts of the rules – the group seems to keep the individual in line.

    I also find that not only restating the question as you do helps to keep the conversation on track, but restating someone’s reply, “if I heard you correctly, you said…” – often times some people in the crowd do not understand the first time and restating or paraphrasing can often reach those folks.

    Of course, not all methods or tricks work all of the time for every topic – choosing your tatics to fit the situation is critical.

  5. Another thing I have done is distribute a brief 1-5 scale survey on key points – very quick to take – bu that added some open ended questions if people cared to make additional points. It allowed the quieter voices to “speak” and quantified some opinions. In addition, I have gleaned some good insights and suggestions. Oftentimes, I can hardly wait to get the copies and digest the data. Amazingly, although optional, many also sign their sheets making it easy to reconnect if you need clarification. I have used this in transit planning, roads that will pierce transitioning land and even take a home or two, and very continuous rezonings.

    Beware of break out discussion groups. Savvy interest groups have been known to fan out and make their points in all the groups – giving the impression theirs was more of a consensus than it was – Thankfully, while not a scientific sampling, the aforementioned surveys proved otherwise.

  6. Great points.

    One other tip: When someone is getting fired up on a rant, stop them with a compliment about whatever they said that is closest to the topic on hand (“That’s an interesting angle on what we heard about earlier from the other side of the room.” or “Thanks for bringing up…. I was going to bring that up later, but let’s stay with that.”)

    Then restate if neccessary.

    Then say, “I want to hear more about this topic. Who else has a comment on …?”

  7. Very good article and discussion topic. But I am a bit troubled when a moderator (or their public agency client) gets to decide who is a “special interest” that needs to be managed. Ms. Rucker’s client was a public planning commission which to me, obligates a higher standard and a duty to hear from all people who want to speak (as time allows) even if they are a “special interest”. Ms. Rucker, in this article, draws no distinction between a “public meeting” of an agency and a “public hearing”. In my state and most others, a public hearing imposes a different legal standard and a defined procedure which would not allow a moderator in the role she played in this case study. I assume from the description this was a less-formal “town hall” meeting or panel discussion allowing a moderator. But it is a public agency. Attendees who invest their valuable time often do not merely want to ask questions and they deserve to make comments. Of course, these need to be civil and limited in length. I’m not advocating giving up control of the meeting. Sometimes, a police officer in the back of the room, unfortunately, is a necessary moderator. When a planning commission holds a public meeting / discussion, it should not be just to pontificate to the public. A dialogue with the public should always be implicit. Rebekah’s post advocating that the rules of the meeting be stated up front is critical to a fair – and therefore orderly meeting.

  8. Thanks for sharing these great points and your personal experience. I can identify with all of it and will put your suggestions to use.
    Denise

  9. Great articles and some good insight – the mic is a powerful symbol of “authority” when an audience member has a point to make, and yes sometimes it’s like a wrestling match – I personally have had one grabbed out of my hand and been pushed aside when – so I can relate to that and the need to limit the “preamble” to the question.
    I also appreciate the reminder to focus on the whole group, not just a corner of those with an issue they wish to raise.
    Thank you

  10. Della did a great job! Without her help, we would have anticipated this meeting going very differently.
    Thanks again for your help!

  11. I commonly use small group break outs to take the “soapbox” opportunity away or at least minimize it. This requires the right meeting space for the public meeting. More work can get done and a stronger consensus can form when the work of the individual groups is presented at the end of the meeting. Maintaining strong control (polite, professional, firm – or at least two of the three!) is very important. I have used colored surveys at meetings to differentiate meeting attendees from b/w copies to control special interest “spamming”. I have also discretely numbered agendas (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4) and then ask groups to break out according to their agenda numbers. Of course, people can still cheat, but small groups tend to regulate themselves very well over all. As was pointed out, most people are there with genuine interest and concern and will not tolerate a bully in a small group nearly as long as in a large one. Hope these techniques make sense and may be of use.

  12. I have attended, participated and been “on the commission/board, etc.” during many meetings where special interest groups take over. This makes it a huge waste of time as well as frustrating. These “tips”, Della, will be most helpful! I have often wanted to just jump up and ask “Is there any NEW that anyone would like to contribute???”

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