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Dealing With High Emotion and 'Staged Anger': Tips for Legislators

We’re in the midst of a great conversation on the main NCDD listserv about the violence and mayhem at town hall meetings on health care legislation, and what our community of practice can/should do to help ensure future political events are more democratic and productive.  A lot of thoughtful posts have been added by people you may have heard of like Pete Peterson, Barnett Pearce, Kenoli Oleari, John Godec and a number of others.  Here’s the latest post, from Martin Carcasson, Director of Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation, which I think includes some particularly helpful insights and ideas for legislators in situations of high public emotion. (Note: you can view the listserv’s archives and/or subscribe here.)

Great discussion that I’ll try to add to here. A few things come to mind, many of them cautions.

Most importantly, we must be clear that this is a different sort of conflict or emotion we are dealing with here. This isn’t just some participants in a process that are angry, these are participants that are mobilizing specifically to disrupt the process and make it send a completely different message. In terms of analyzing the conflict, this form of conflict seems almost outside of the topic of the forums. They aren’t necessarily trying to get their point of view across, they are trying to attack the legitimacy of the process (and host) itself and send a broader message. So the typical facilitator interventions to deal with conflict—such as letting them vent, paraphrasing, reframing it and shifting to a deeper level, exploring  the underlying values, getting others involved, etc.—won’t work here. I’m not sure having strict ground rules would work well either, because they are specifically mobilizing to either take advantage of ground rules, or to disregard them.  Part of me feels any facilitator attempts to try to manage them will backfire. Trying to kick these people out of meeting will only serve to support their cause, and could lead to violence. And if the town meeting is sponsored by a U.S. representative or senator, the free speech implications are rather high to not allowing them to speak.

I am also somewhat wary of an impartial community resource trying to host these for legislators, unless they can get multiple, bi-partisan legislators to come together (which would be a great symbolic gesture in itself). If my organization, which works hard to cultivate its impartiality, hosted a town hall meeting for a Democratic or Republican legislator, especially in these polarized times, I would have to be very careful in how I frame my work there. I could easily get my organization caught up in the partisanship, and that would cause significant damage to my capacity to serve my community in other endeavors. All in all, I guess we are caught in high risk/high reward situations. If we can help and really pull it off, wonderful, but it will be a high bar, and we know the media will focus on the conflict if there is any, so I just suggest, channeling Hill Street Blues for a second, that we all “be careful out there.”

So I’ve rambled a bit about cautions, but what can we do? If I was asked to help plan a meeting for a legislator right now, here are some of the things I would think about/suggest.

Like many others have mentioned on here, part of it is to plan early and be clear about the purpose/goals for the event. One of my biggest process suggestions would be to avoid big crowds by splitting the people up as much as possible. Don’t give people a microphone in front of a big crowd and cameras. That is what they seek, and what these poorly designed town halls deliver. These legislators need to get creative, and get some help, so their “town hall” meetings can be small group discussions that capture the information in some way that still informs the legislator.

Part of it will be being clear with the legislator that they need to reframe the purpose of their events. Too often these “town hall” meetings are primarily rallies or a chance for questions and quick answers. Too many of them are checking off the public participation box, rather than truly seeking public input.  In particular, I don’t think legislators can go into these intent on persuading people why they are voting one way or another, they need to go in intent on hearing the public voice.

Pete Peterson made an interesting point about the administration believing the November election was the public engagement on health care. Not sure I completely agree, but the point certainly has some merit. Clearly there is frustration with people feeling that the bill is being “pushed down our throats” and angst that the legislators haven’t even read the bill. I would also say that the administration made a mistake in terms of how they have been selling the bill. They seemed to have avoiding the notion of tough choices/tradeoffs that is central to much of our work. They seemed to take the PR route for the bill, focusing on all its benefits, and hoping to avoid discussion of its flaws. I just don’t think that will work in our political climate. It makes it a battle that no one can win.

So to bring this back to the town hall meetings, I would think that a process that is framed from the beginning in terms of tradeoffs would have a better chance to be successful. The legislator needs to take the stance that no matter what, we can’t have it all. We can’t have higher quality, lower cost, more freedom of choice, more access, etc. We as a nation have to face some tradeoffs, and we need to talk about how we make those decisions. I haven’t heard that from the administration and bill supporters enough, and that plays into the protestors tactics. But what would happen if these legislators called for their constituents to come together to really think through what they like and don’t like about the bill, and what tradeoffs they were and were not willing to make. Break them up into small groups, and give no one the microphone. Keep good notes, or have some sort of method to capture the data (like keypads or dots or written surveys or whatever) so the legislator can honestly say they are hearing the public voice. Be completely transparent on that information. Let the protestors rail, but have them rail against a small group of fellow citizens. Also be sure to publicize the process, so the moderate middle will show up, knowing it will be more substantive than a shouting match.

My last thought is that part of me is thinking you just have to take them head on. Trying to avoiding them is playing into their hands. Don’t come up will elaborate rules to keep them out, they are hoping for those because it will get them on TV (or should I say youtube). The legislator should start off by saying something to the effect of, “I know you are angry, so we’ve designed a process to hear as many of you as we can, and I am going to stop talking and start listening…”   A location should be chosen that will disperse the people well, like a high school. Have groups in different classrooms,  not in one big auditorium. The legislator and a group of aides could then wander to each of the rooms, listening.

A quick point about the data to collect. I would suggest that any “voting” (through keypads, surveys, or dots) should focus on particular aspects of the bill and reform proposals. Don’t make the meeting about voting “yes” or “no” on the bill, but about talking about the positive and negative aspects of the bill. Gather info on that, which is useful information, not just the overall vote which just reverts back to interest group politics. Don’t just allow “I hate the bill,” force them to explain why they hate the bill, and if they had to choose, what parts are the worst and why. Inherently then we move from screaming at each other to discussing arguments.

Of course, all this takes capacity. It takes a group of community facilitators to run the break out groups. It takes a community network to mobilize the moderate middle to counter to organized extremes. It takes access to public places that fit the process. And most important, it takes legislators that realize we need better ways to have better conversations.

Perhaps the silver lining in this crisis is that more and more legislators may finally have that realization, and thus be partners in our attempts to build deliberative capacity.

Martín Carcasson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Communication Studies
Director, Center for Public Deliberation
210 Eddy Building, 1783 Campus Delivery
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO  80523-1783

(970) 491-5628
Center website: www.cpd.colostate.edu

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Michael Gordon says:

    It has been so disconcerting to watch these staged displays of disruptive behavior. I appreciate this thoughtful discourse on the subject.

    One "tool" to use, along the lines of Dr. Carcasson's suggestions, is to utilize AmericaSpeaks. I participated in one of their public sessions on health care in CA, simultaneously with 8,000 participants in 8 cities. All done in small groups of 10, facilitated, clear and specific agendas, balanced set of participants (they work hard at attaining this mix).

    Check 'em out…

  2. I love what you've written Marvin, and see a very useful role for those of us in the D&D community to offer our assistance in running the small groups. How can we get this out to our Congresspeople and quickly — they are really under fire…

  3. Dawn Newsome says:

    While hysteria never furthers public policy it is easy to understand the emotional nature of some of those who are speaking up. But to suggest that if one speaks out at these meetings they must be "mobilizing specifically to disrupt the process", or that they are "planted" is absurd. This is one of the most important and life-changing events in our history. We are seeing people take a stand for something they believe in. This is democracy in action. Not a "fringe" group. If people are going to be condemned for speaking out, how does that encourage citizen participation? Those of us who favor civic engagement are trying to encourage the public to participate and engage with their public officials but when they do they are labeled as Nazis and un-American. "Staged" displays of disruptive behavior?
    Your solution is to break up into smaller groups. I guess you could do that.
    My solution: give people a forum. Let them know they will have an opportunity to speak. Give them a microphone, have them take turns, and a time limit to state their case. Offer those who have a differing opinion from the first group the same courtesy. Listen to what they have to say. Of course this only works if those holding the meetings really and truly want to hear what their constituents think, which I suspect in a lot of cases they do not. There's probably a very good reason we're seeing this kind of behavior. People are fed up with having government shoved down their throats and fear another dismal, expensive, failed government-run program (USPS? Public housing? Public schools? Any history of success here? I think not.) What ever happened to freedom of speech? This is sort of like what happened a couple of hundred years ago…in England.

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