The Consensus Building Approach to Dealing With Town Hall Disruptions

By — on / Conflict Resolution

The debate over how to reform health care has quickly become volatile and often unproductive, with the media focusing on who brings the largest group of shouting protesters.

Professor Lawrence Susskind of the Program on Negotiation and the Consensus Building Institute outlines in his blog how to use a consensus building approach to improve the level of discourse at health care reform town hall meetings.

He suggests the following steps for congressmen and congresswomen who are about to host a town hall meeting:

  • Begin by telling the audience that you’ve come to hear what they have to say, not to tell them what they ought to believe
  • Select a dozen or so individuals who want to speak and give them access to a microphone, one at a time, for five minutes each
  • Listen carefully, but don’t respond to what each of them has to say
  • Once they have all spoken, play back the major points they raised to show that you have been listening
  • Address each of the points they raised, either agreeing or disagreeing (within five minutes on each point), and explain why you hold the positions you do
  • Distribute a short survey (created on the spot) to get everyone in attendance to indicate their support or opposition to each of the key points that was raised
  • Announce that you will be publishing the results of the survey on your web site AND that will be commissioning an independent survey of all the residents of your district to see whether the views expressed at the town hall meeting are representative of your full constituency

If your goal is to hear what people have to say, this is how to proceed.  If your goal is to convince people that they ought to believe as you do, a town hall meeting is an inappropriate format. Your need to put a written statement together (with appropriate data to support your arguments).  If your goal is to build an informed agreement among contending interest groups in your district, you need to ask each group to select a spokesperson and invite those individuals, with the help of a mediator, to sort through their difference and see if they can negotiate a written agreement.

To read the entire blog entry, visit Prof. Susskind’s blog by clicking here.