Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Facing an angry crowd, from congressional town halls to your next talk

One of the stranger phenomena in a strange new political world has been the sight of Republican members of Congress running away from constituents gathered for live, in-person "town hall" meetings all over America.

A staple of the political world, town hall meetings are an open forum where anyone might attend. But with concerns about the new White House occupants and the Republican Congress running high, attendance has been at record levels--and even the New York Times has been signaling which reporters will attend which town halls in advance. For their part, elected representatives getting creative about how to avoid the in-person interaction, by cancelling the sessions, running out of them, trying to limit actual in-room attendance, and more. For this week's recess, some 200 Republican members of Congress plan to avoid, rather than meet with, constituents. From Vice:
Instead they’re opting for more controlled Facebook Live or “tele-town halls,” where questions can be screened by press secretaries and followups are limited — as are the chances of becoming the next viral meme of the Left. 
For the first two months of the new Congress, the 292 Republicans have scheduled just 88 in-person town hall events — and 35 of those sessions are for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, according to a tabulation conducted by Legistorm. In the first two months of the previous Congress in 2015, by contrast, Republicans held 222 in-person town hall events.
So it was refreshing to see this headline: In Charleston, a rare show of civility between left-leaning activists and their conservative congressman. From the article:
Unlike Republican incumbents in other states, Sanford is not running from the opposition. Instead, he's engaging with his agitators, even agreeing to hold the town hall meeting Saturday morning at their request.
The activists, in turn, are taking a civil and diplomatic approach to their dialogue with Sanford, asking pointed questions on topics ranging from health care to federal regulations. They haven't started to hurl accusations, boos or jeers.
It's exactly the right approach when you are facing an audience that's at best skeptical and at worst angry with you, whether you are a climate scientist, an elected official, or the administrator who's made an unpopular decision. Step one is to face the crowd, rather than run away, avoid, or cancel, all steps that speak volumes, and not in a good way. If you can't show up for your own public meeting, dears, I can't help you further.

But step two can be helpful and disarming. Start with the crowd's questions and concerns, before you launch into your presentation. Starting with Q&A--much of which may be angry comments and accusations, rather than actual questions--may feel like you're facing a firing squad. But letting your constituents (be they voters, consumers, customers, or any other) have their say first will work magic if you listen attentively and acknowledge hearing their ire and concern.

Here's the trick: You do not have to come to agreement on every point, something that the person facing the questioning crowd often forgets. Engaging with a public audience doesn't mean you all have to wind up on the same page. Far from it. But it does require you to listen and hear what their views are, and give them the opportunity to speak. And once a comment, in particular, has been firmly expressed, thank the person sharing it, for sharing it. Acknowledge that you've heard them.

Do you get to say something? Sure, but make certain that you sandwich it in between Q&A sessions--a few minutes at the start for questions, then your short presentation, then back to questions. Or, opt for an all-questions session.

It may surprise you that this tactic takes a lot of the sting out of the proceedings. Angry public audiences who attend such a meeting may not get you to change your mind, but they can at least see you giving them a hearing, acknowledging what they've shared as a concern, and sharing your own views. That's a point too many in Congress will be missing this week, while they are on recess, visiting their home districts and trying to run away from voters.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by paolo barzman)

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