Town Hall Meetings: It’s a Setup

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to improve the political conversation in the U.S., and how tools of conflict resolution might be employed to reduce polarization and bring our political conversations to a more productive end. There are some phenomenal groups already working to better engage citizens across polarized views: Essential Partners, Make America Dinner Again, and Better Angels, to name a few.

Drawing from our experience facilitating productive dialogue in the political sphere, we’ve thought about kicking off our own guide to engaging polarization citizen-to-citizen. We even have a catchy name for it that we think you’ll like – stay tuned for more in a future blog post.

But first we want to focus on the policy conversation. How do we improve the dialogue at the policy-making level so that legislators and constituents are having productive, positive conversations rather than circling the divisive drain?

The dramatic town hall meetings of early 2017 first caught our attention. As one of the pillars of democracy, this is a classic American forum in which constituents and legislators engage on difficult policy issues face to face. And in 2017 (not to mention 2009…), we saw some of those meetings go up in flames as legislators scrambled to respond to an enraged – and increasingly polarized – electorate. Alexis de Toqueville once wrote that local institutions, like town hall meetings, were “to liberty what primary schools are to science.” Given the recent state of affairs, we couldn’t agree more.

Here’s the thing. The more we participate in, observe, and read about town hall meetings, the more we realize: it’s a setup. Town hall meetings are touted as a great opportunity for legislators and constituents to connect, a place for constituents to have their voices heard and for legislators to share their views on issues that matter most to their constituents. But this set-up is based on a didactic way of engaging conversation, and all too often this method lends itself to one-way communication in which the legislators and constituents are simply advocating at each other rather than learning from each other.

So, where are we going wrong? We believe the answer lies in the following 4 areas:

 

1)Need skill building to plan for and handle difficult conversations in the moment

When it comes to intellectual debate around different policy issues, legislators tend to have these skills in the bag. After all, politicians are trained on exactly what to say and how to say it when encountering their political rival in a public setting. And there’s no question that legislators should expect friction with their constituents, as this is an unavoidable aspect of town halls. They do, however, need to be prepared to handle friction in an entirely different way than they would facing their opponent in a television debate. What doesn’t always come naturally here are the distinct skills needed to effectively engage with constituents on the emotionally laden issues that they raise.

Our suggestion for legislators is to heed the advice of American business theorist Chris Argyris and embrace one of our favorite negotiation tools: the ladder of inference. Essentially, this requires a shift away from the “debate” mindset, where aggressive advocacy and defensiveness reign supreme, to one of understanding through the process of inquiry. It sounds simple, but in a high-stakes environment like a town hall meeting, it’s easy to forget that legislators are there to listen to their constituents – and part of listening requires genuine question asking.

 

2)Misalignment on the reason and result

One of the central frameworks we apply in our work, whether we’re facilitating dialogue across governments or corporations, is the 5 Ps of Meeting Design. Two of these “Ps,” Purpose and Product, are particularly relevant for this conversation, as the volatile nature of town halls these days often leads to a misalignment between their intended purpose – learning, engaging, and gathering ideas – and the actual end product.

     Purpose:

Understanding purpose from the start is crucial in order to hold a productive meeting that serves its goals. When there is ambiguity around the purpose, it can naturally lead to frustration from constituents and legislators who came in with conflicting ideas about what should be accomplished. If the purpose is to air grievances and hold senators accountable, for example, the meeting should be structured in such a way that these goals can be met – perhaps aided by stakeholder assessment and engagement prior to the meeting.

     Product:

Similarly, the end product of town halls is often ambiguous or implied, which can create dissatisfaction among constituents who were hoping to see a more immediate impact once they voiced their concerns to legislators. To avoid this frustration, we recommend that both the purpose (reason) and product (result) are explicitly stated and made available to all attendees prior to the start of the meeting – through the advertising about the event and the framing at the start of the meeting. Whether the end product is a video recording, a list of concrete policy recommendations, or a set of further questions for exploration – identifying a deliverable and tailoring the meeting to that end goal benefits both sides by managing expectations and creating a shared target.

 

3)A need for skilled facilitators, not just moderators

In our work supporting multi-stakeholder dialogues, we have found it essential to be clear about roles, and to separate the facilitator role from that of convener or honorable guest.

In most public meetings, a moderator smooths the transitions of the conversation. The moderator may introduce the meeting and the lead speakers. They may also advise on process, meaning how the meeting will proceed and how questions will be received. The moderator is typically a person of honor from the hosting institution or the local community (e.g., a meeting held at a community college may be moderated by the college’s president, a community leader who has wide support may moderate, or a journalist may moderate if the host is a media source).

When conversations become contentious – and as we have discussed above, we should expect town hall meetings to be contentious – moderators are often ill-equipped to support the member of Congress in navigating the difficult interaction. A skilled facilitator, by contrast, can manage multiple perspectives, reframe comments appropriately, and support the member of Congress by mediating conversations between the member and constituents. Facilitators are trained to frame dialogue in impartial terms, and to shape a conversation so that discussions of difference bring insight rather than driving further divisions.

We recommend that members of Congress seek out local, skilled facilitators who can partner with them to manage the process of a potentially challenging interaction with constituents. Active facilitation can make the difference between a fractious debate and a learning dialogue that provides insight to both the member and the constituents in attendance at the meeting.

 

4)Facilitating the shift from advocacy to dialogue

When faced with conflicting opinions, especially in a high-stakes situation, the human tendency is often to resort to advocacy. That is, our first instinct is to explain, defend, clarify, convince, and essentially do whatever we can do get our point across. Both constituents and legislators are very skilled at advocating for their positions, and advocacy is a critical element of activism in a democratic system. The challenge is that advocacy reaches its limits, and we often see people “agreeing to disagree” rather than working together on a possible solution to the contentious issue.

Culturally, Americans are seasoned debaters. Strong advocacy from one side is often met with more advocacy from the other side, which creates the perfect recipe for hostility. Our recommendation is to engage dialogue as a problem-solving process that is less about whose view is right or wrong and instead focuses on what we can accomplish by understanding each other’s views and making action plans accordingly.

If legislators can become more adept at inquiry by demonstrating genuine curiosity about their constituents’ perspectives, and activists can similarly engage with curiosity about policies they oppose, the conversation will likely be much more productive for both sides.

That said, engaging in productive public conversations doesn’t mean that legislators and constituents should leave their activism at the door. We need space – and skills – for both advocacy and dialogue in order to generate durable solutions. Finding the balance is key.

 

What are your thoughts on recent town hall meetings? Are we fighting a downhill battle, or is there time to turn the conversation around? Let us know in the comments section! (And keep an eye out for future posts on engaging polarization).

Written by Jayne Nucete and Britta Wilhelmsen

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