As I am writing this, more than 1,500 people have read the article on strategies for managing public meetings – blowing the previous record for this site way out of the water. Thanks for the boost to my (enormous and ever-hungry) ego, folks!
Here’s the cool part: the comments – both here and on various LinkedIn groups where the article link was posted – have demonstrated an awesome level of wisdom. The commenters have raised observations, identified strategies and uncovered general good practices that we should all stick in our back pocket for next time.
So instead of leaving them scattered all over the Internetz, I’m excerpting them here. I’ll add my comments in italics below each quote.
Thanks so much to all of the people who took the time to share their expertise. If you have other good ideas, please feel free to post them in the comment box at the bottom of the page, It would be great fun to keep this conversation going.
Y’all are smart cookies. Thanks again.
Part of the delusion of public meetings is [that] the folks with an axe to grind, a vehement agenda, compelling self-interest in the decision, etc. are the ones who make the time to go and then participate. It gives the ready illusion of a majority opinion, a consensus, the will of the voters or at least a powerful voting bloc’s pique or placation, and of course that’s the whole point…. I’ve noticed in town assessment sessions of 8-17 separate listening sessions in a couple of days, most of the insightful stuff came from quiet people who shared their thoughts at the end as the noisy ones filed out, proud that they’d restated the obvious or their passion loudly and publicly yet again.
- Al Jones
You got that right, Al. One of the major reasons for not moderating passively — letting whoever say whatever, like many public meeting leaders do — is that you will probably end up with a less accurate representation of what the community thinks than you would if you made a more active effort to hear from a mix of participants.
We who live so much of our lives in the public realm have an incredibly hard time remembering how many of our citizens quake in fear of the idea of going near that mic. But give them a chance to talk out of the spotlight, and it’s amazing what you will learn from them. If you don’t believe me, ask the other parents on your kid’s soccer team or your mother’s bridge club friends how they would feel about talking to an auditorium full of people. You’ll get an earful.
My observations in public meetings is that many people do not know how to be civil during the process. This includes elected and appointed officials. I believe that moderators definitely help, but they are not utilized often enough.
- Denese Neu, Ph.D
[One of the things I have learned] from my experience in some extremely tough positions and environments is that the up front keys to not let a meeting get out of control is to set your own expectations, know as much about the attitudes of the potential audience and prepare to accept an outcome that is reasonable to the situation.
-John R. Zakian, CEcD
Great point, Denese and John.
When teachers start a new school year, one of the first things they do is discuss classroom ground rules with the kids. That’s critical to setting the expectations where they need to be, and it gives everyone a common reference point when someone doesn’t behave.
We can definitely do that in a public meeting setting – in the meeting that I described, I actually did start by reminding the audience what we were there to talk about and pointing out that we needed to keep the comments on that track because that was what others had come for (additional point: invoking a little peer pressure doesn’t hurt – I got the definite sense that some of the agenda people did a quick reshuffling of what they wanted to say because of it).
One really good teacher trick that we can use in some settings is to ask the participants what the ground rules should be. You get 90% of the same rules that you would have if you just imposed them, you might get some others that are beneficial to the particular setting and group, and the whole audience becomes part-owners of the civility and quality of the conversation. The downside is that this process takes a little longer – I tend to use this for groups that will meet multiple times, like a steering committee, rather than a public Q &A.
Acknowledge the person and repeat the question or statement to the wider audience;
It is sometimes useful to ask a counter question instead of trying to defend e.g. “What do you think is the solution?”;
Suggest to them to discuss the issue in more detail after the meeting.
- Déan Jacobs
A couple of people pointed out the benefit of asking people to propose solutions, rather than just complain. That can definitely lend a much the higher level of constructive value to the conversation – and after the first couple of times you do that, people will think twice about pure bellyaching because they realize that they will be asked for a solution.
I would be careful about where and with whom you use this strategy, however… in some cases, that approach could open the door for the off-topic agenda that someone is hiding below the surface. If your Spidey-sense tingles at the idea of giving the commenter an opening to lay into their agenda, you can ask the rest of the participants to propose solutions. That has the additional benefit of broadening the conversation beyond one interest group as well.
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 …?”
Great tactic, Steve. Love how this end the rant, shifts the attention away from the ranter and back to the whole audience… all while making the ranter feel like he/she might have just gotten a compliment!
One of the best examples I’ve heard of comes from Tom Hudson… who would never toot his own horn. He’s told of his experience in a public meeting that he was facilitating where they expected the appearance of a man who had made threatening calls to the city. Sure enough, the guy showed up drunk and belligerent. He did some ranting and the police removed him.
After things settled, Tom, who is one of the keenest observers of human nature I’ve ever met, concluded: “Now there’s a person who really cares about his community!”
Tom suggests turning a crowd into your friends, because both positive and negative comments should be shaping outcomes and solutions.
I couldn’t agree more!
Gary and Tom (agreed – Tom is outstanding!) point out two very valuable lessons:
- Yes, definitely make friends with the audience. Channelling your inner standup comic can take a little practice, but few things gentle up a potentially confrontational meeting like a laugh.
- Sometimes, despite our best efforts, having police as co-workers comes in handy …
I only wish we had microphones in some of my meetings. I’ve had to resort to other strategies to keep control. Moving around the audience — even turning my back to loud mouths — has been essential to keeping the discussion (or dialog) distributed.
A meeting is a process for learning, and people change their positions. Extroverts speak loudly too soon; introverts wait too long and speak too quietly. A good facilitator must keep track of the different personalities and engage them all frequently summarizing and rolling this “dough” around as the dialog takes shape.
Nice tactic — gotta be a little careful about how exactly you do the back-turning, but sometimes it’s all in the finesse, eh?
I like your definition of a meeting, and I think that gives us a basis for re-designing how we set these kinds of sessions up. I think there’s a risk for the people who do speak that the moment at the center stage can make it impossible to change your mind. In many cases, the usual format could push people into feeling that they must cling to the position they staked out at the beginning, rather than being able to reconsider. But again, we have to keep in mind that the people who speak are not the only ones who have opinions. Follow-up surveys — paper, online, raising hands — can help that “dough rolling” process.
When I’m running a public meeting over a controversial topic, I use note cards and have people write down their questions. Then staff members will shift through questions and read the most relevant ones out loud. This also helps people collect their thoughts rather than just rambling at a microphone. I also agree with your point that you don’t have to call on everyone! :> Especially if you’re running on a schedule. Facilitators can always take questions and post answers online or send them out to the group. I also make myself available for questions after the meeting.
-Tifinie Capehart, MUP
Both good ideas. The note card tactic gives tighter control and doesn’t allow for much participant conversation, but requiring people to organize their thoughtsin writing can often benefit the overall quality of the feedback.
You do need to be a little careful about whether everyone in attendance can participate in this manner – someone who cannot write because of disability or illiteracy, or someone who doesn’t work in written English well, can be essentially muted in this situation. So it’s critical to provide another alternative method for feedback – even if that’s just talking to a staffer afterward.
One of the pieces we do often fumble is the follow-up. Posting answers to questions that were not answered during the meeting, follow-up on factual questions, etc. can go a long way toward demonstrating that your agency was paying attention. Just sticking that on your website, however, can be like sticking the memo in the back of the file cabinet – if you did it and people don’t know that you did it, you probably shouldn’t have wasted your time. It needs to be not only accessible and readily visible, but the fact that it’s there needs to be publicized.
I don’t know if some of [the methods described] — like never letting go of the microphone (a really good idea) — could be used at a formal public hearing like on a special use permit.
- Daniel Lauber
That’s a good question, and it’s going to depend a lot on what your local regulations and policies prescribe. Certainly, if you’re going to use that kind of strategy in a public hearing format, you would need to make sure that you take the mic to every single person who wants it, and that everyone has access to methods for feedback other than the in-person, in-meeting comment. You certainly should make those kinds of options available in any situation.
A big issue with the uninvolved facilitator I’ve noticed … was that they often focus too much on the process…[you have a] big thorny issue, [the facilitator gives you]15 minutes of one-liner brainstorming with no time for evaluation or thoughts too complex to take more than a catchphrase or 10 words, and [the facilitator assures that] we’ll wrassle through this in the meeting time allocated. Think of all of the thoughts in the Federalist Papers compressed to an hour with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson each restricted to being called on once or twice.
Al raises an uber-issue here: if we are sincere about public engagement, a two-hour public meeting with half an hour of controlled Q&A isn’t enough to get the job done. When we design a site, we go through multiple steps that each add something different to the final result. When we negotiate an economic development deal, we do the same thing – several steps, each for a different purpose , the whole is the sum of the parts. Useful, constructive, meaningful public engagement is no different. We need to craft a multi-prong, multi-step approach. More on that next time.