For nearly three centuries, all around this great nation, neighbors have crowded together in school auditoriums, church basements, and community centers to discuss the important issues affecting their communities: an uptick in crime or a proposed large-scale development, for instance.
“The community meeting, whether it’s about a stop sign, a school, a hospital, a shelter, or a candidate forum, is really the entry point into democracy,” says the Boston organizer and meeting facilitator Malia Lazu.
She’s right. The old-fashioned town meeting might be the most democratic thing we do as a society, with its free flow of ideas, indiscriminate of class, race, and sex.
Except when it’s not. Some residents’ voices are drowned out, facilitators and resident “experts” pull rank or refuse to listen to each other, and discussions devolve into shouting matches. Then, a meeting feels more like Jerry Springer than an exchange of ideas. When meetings go bad, it’s a deterrent to people getting involved in community processes, and ultimately a slight to civic engagement.
Are you guilty—as an organizer or attendee—of any of these public meeting faux pas?
1. Setting up the room—for failure
Most meeting spaces are not places where creativity thrives, Lazu says, but where “joy goes to die.” The physical setup of a room either encourages or hinders an open and civil sharing of ideas. For instance, arranging the chairs in an arc forces people to look at one another and contributes to a feeling of collaboration, says Maureen White, a meeting facilitator and public engagement expert in Boston. (This feeling is lost in setups involving straight rows of chairs facing the front of the room.) What’s more, both White and Lazu detest meeting spaces that place a panel of leaders or experts physically above meeting attendees—on a stage or behind a table—as it conveys that some neighbors’ input matters more than others’.
2. Hogging the air time
We’ve all rolled our eyes at the “Mic Dominator,” who is consistently one of the most common sidetrackers of meetings. A mic hog elevates their speech above everyone else’s. A facilitator can be an offender here as well, co-opting air time and shutting out others’ opinions.
What can a leader do to rein in the Mic Dominator? Lazu encourages audiences to regulate the big talkers by breaking into applause when a person has been on the mic too long—she says this approach beats beats yelling. White says she was once in a meeting where someone tracked how many times each person spoke, and for how long, and shared that information at the end. “It was very eye-opening,” she recalls.
3. Not participating
Failing to speak up and participate can be as problematic as speaking too much. When one voice is silenced (from within or without), the process suffers.
White often employs a “step up, step back” policy at her meetings, wherein quieter people are encouraged to speak up while those inclined to talk a lot are asked to check their participation. Breakout groups are also helpful in giving more people an opportunity to contribute in a smaller setting.
4. Pulling rank
The community meeting is supposed to be an egalitarian marketplace of ideas—a place where residents and decision-makers can chart a pathway forward, together. Sometimes, though, attendees or leaders communicate, implicitly or explicitly, that their opinions matters more. At meetings in Boston, for instance, attendees commonly begin comments by stating how long they’ve lived in the neighborhood—implying that newer residents’ opinions are less valid. Others seek to separate themselves from the masses by describing their board involvement, college degrees, or employment history. Also, Lazu says, beware of the person who “wears multiple hats.”
“They see themselves as representing a lot of things, which means they need a louder voice,” she says.
5. Selling your own agenda
The marketplace of ideas doesn’t work when individuals come to hock their own agendas and projects.
White remembers leading a series of public events where residents participated in small discussions of several big transportations questions facing the city of Boston. One man attended each of the meetings, armed with his laptop, to present his pet project to the attendees at his table. No.
6. Over-using jargon
This one is connected to pulling rank because experts and insiders—those close to or well-versed in an issue—tend to utilize jargon, intentionally or not, which can alienate others in the meeting. (Professors are especially guilty of this one, Lazu says.) She recommends setting ground rules at the start of the meeting that include the formation of a shared language and establish the space as one where people feel respected and heard.
7. Spreading negativity
Debbie and Donnie Downer show up to almost every community meeting, it seems, and meet every idea and proposal with a reason (or five) why it’ll never work: “We tried this 30 years ago.” “I just know it’s going to fail.”
It’s not to say we shouldn’t speak up if we see a fatal flaw in the plan, or draw on our experience, but when certain attendees—or even facilitators—constantly question and sow negativity, the optimism for solving the problem is severely compromised.
8. Bringing our less-than-best selves
“Ask people to come into the space with an open heart,” Lazu says. “That [way] we come with our bigger selves. That’s hard to do.” The author Stephen Covey said it this way: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Too often, neighbors arrive at the meeting with shields up, looking for a fight—sometimes preemptively turning what should have been a collaborative process into a UFC match.
9. Calling a fake meeting
When is a community meeting not a community meeting? When the agency or municipality in charge is not actually interested in hearing what residents think. For instance, the 2015 trainwreck that was Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. Only after the mayor had signed an agreement banning city employees from criticizing the Olympics and placed wealthy businessmen (whose enterprises stood to benefit) in charge of the bid did city officials and the committee finally go into the neighborhoods to meet with residents. Lazu says the Olympics process seemed to be less about seeking genuine feedback and more about winning over the skeptics.
“A lot of times meetings are created in a way to say, ‘great, we did a hearing,’” she says. During the Olympics bid, she adds, the community process “just collapsed so horribly, or spectacularly, or beautifully—however you want to look at it—it deserved a gold medal.”
The bottom line:Residents should absolutely take responsibility for their crappy attitudes and actions in community processes, but the blame for off-the-rails meetings lies with organizers and facilitators, Lazu says.
“It’s your responsibility as the organizer—just like when you throw a party,” she says. “You invited all these people here. It still needs to be your responsibility to hold the space.”