My story of two recent meetings

22 07 2010

I have planned and facilitated two neighborhood meetings with emotionally-sensitive topics in the past month. The first was a meeting with property owners entering the property acquisition process. The second was a meeting with adjacent property owners who are not being acquired now, but may be in the future. We intentionally set up two separate meetings because each group has different needs and issues; to try and tackle both at once was not going to be productive for either.

In coordination with the project team, I spent a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of various formats. We spoke at length about what would make the best use of everyone’s time and how to make the meeting valuable to the people who attended. We focused on format and process before finalizing messaging and materials; proof that the media is the message; or in this case, the format is central to how we convey the message and how it is received.

We decided to use a table discussion format that allowed sharing information face-to-face with a small group and letting attendees’ questions drive the discussion.  This helped diffuse some of the emotion and allowed the group at the table to hear the answers to each other’s questions (especially since many people had the same questions). We provided handouts and maps at each table to support the discussion, but the strategy really depended on the table facilitators to answer questions openly, honestly and to the best of their knowledge.

Our team has developed a few mantras that have proven useful in planning for emotional contexts. One is “when you have bad news, see the whites of their eyes.” This reminds us of the need to treat each person individually and deliver information on a personal basis. The large group setting is risky because the audience can become just a sea of faces and project representatives can be viewed as Big Brother. The room set-up of presenter and audience implicitly creates an “us-them” tension. By talking around a table, we were setting up a space for conversation between people. We all act more humanely and treat each other with more respect at the conversation level.

The second guiding principle that led us to the table discussion format is transparency. In my experience, and in these situations the past month, people expressed appreciation that the project team was willing to meet with them, answer tough questions and hear their concerns. We did not prepare an elaborate presentation. We did not do a dog and pony show. We were not going to sugar-coat the difficult situation these property owners faced. People see right through that. Instead, we focused on being genuine, listening to people’s concerns and giving them the best information we had in order to equip them for the decisions to be made in coming months.

Finally, we prepared meeting staff for emotion. At a preparation meeting, we openly discussed how these property owners might feel and tried to see the project and meeting from their point of view. We discussed the need to listen and allow attendees’ time to vent. We also discussed the limits of what was acceptable and how we would support each other if a situation got out of control.

The two meetings went very well with very little eruption of emotion. People were civil, asked their tough questions and expressed their frustrations. Most attendees appeared to leave satisfied that they were heard and had more information than when they arrived. Our team agreed that keeping the conversation at the table-level was the right choice for the situation and both meetings were heralded a success!


Public Meeting Planning Tips: Choosing a Meeting Format

15 07 2010

A public meeting does not have to be an open house or a large group presentation with Q&A. In fact, your project and your public would be better served to carefully examine your options for meeting format in order to determine how to best facilitate the meeting. Different meeting formats are better suited for different meeting purposes.

 So how do you decide on a meeting format?

  1. Determine the meeting purpose. What do you expect people to get out of the meeting? Moreover, as a project team, what do you want out of the meeting? Is your purpose to inform? To gather input? To deliver difficult news? Consider your audience, message, and any action you may ask people to take. Can information be presented or comments received another way? Do you really need a meeting? Until you know the purpose in meeting, your planning will flounder.
  2. Evaluate prior history. What is your audience accustomed to? If the group is used to large group presentation with Q&A, what is the risk of changing it up? What is the potential that they spontaneously demand what they are used to doing? Additionally, consider what your team is comfortable with. This includes understanding the team’s capabilities; do you have a strong presenter? Or in the absence of a good presenter, how can information best be delivered?
  3. Think through scenarios. Imagine your meeting in various formats. What do you think would work and what problems would arise? Who would get the most out of it? Who would have difficulties? Go back to your meeting purpose. What format best achieves your purpose in a fair and equitable way?
  4. Imagine the worst-case scenario. As you gravitate to a particular meeting format, think through the potential risks of what could go wrong, be frustrating or be missed. Can those frustrations be mitigated or can you live with them for the positive benefits of the format you choose? What can be done to minimize frustrations, such as providing a brief orientation to the room at the sign-in table or including a clear purpose statement on a welcome board or handout?
  5. Be confident and committed to the format you choose. Know your rationale for selecting the meeting format and what it helps facilitate. An open house, for example, facilitates individual discussions whereas a large group presentation allows everyone to hear the same information at the same time. The meeting will be effective if the format supports your purpose.

Next week: My story of two recent meetings