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Larry Susskind's Advice for Officials Holding Town Hall Meetings on Health Care Reform

Below is part of Larry Susskind’s most recent post on his blog, The Consensus Building Approach. Larry provides some practical advice Congresspeople can easily follow for town hall meetings they’re holding now, based on decades of experience facilitating public dialogue in politically charged situations:

1. Begin by saying that you want to hear what the audience has to say. Ask 5 volunteers to come up on the stage to ask whatever questions or make whatever statements they think are important. Invite them up. Make it clear that you don’t know any of these people and you are just trying to find out what people who bothered to come to the town hall meeting have to say. Pick five who raise their hands and appear to represent different age or other groups. Let them speak. Tell them that the ground rule is that each person has the mike for no more than five minutes. Invite them to sit on the stage with you. (Make sure someone is controlling the mike and make it clear that it will be shut off after five minutes.) Don’t try to respond to each statement. Just listen.

2. Then, after those five have spoken and gone back to the audience. Ask for 3 more people who have different points they want to make that don’t repeat what has already been said. Again, choose three from those who indicate a desire to speak. Invite them up. Same ground rule. Let them speak. Don’t respond to each person.

3. When the eight have spoken (it could be 10 if you want), make a list of the key concerns or criticisms that have been raised. Re-state each argument in the most empathetic way you can — as if you believed each claim or criticism. Show that you have listened. When you have played the points back, ask those who stated them originally whether you have understood their concerns. If they say no, spend a minute or two trying to re-state their points.

4. Then, announce that you are going to take no more than 3 – 5 minutes to respond to each of those points. Since you have given those who have concerns a chance to voice them, you expect to be given the same courtesy. If people disrupt, remind them of this ground rule. If the whole crowd continue to be unruly, indicate that you will end the town hall and broadcast your responses on the web and the radio. See if that gives you the “space” you need to have your say.

5. If you manage to get through all eight points. Then, open the microphones — people need to stand in line to use them one at a time — so that anyone can rebut what you have said, respond to one of the original statements, or raise any additional question they like. Promise that by the next day, you will make available to anyone who provides an email address or a snail mail address a written version of your responses to all the questions raised.

6. Hand out a survey form to everyone in the room. Include three or four open ended questions about people’s reactions to the parts of the proposed reform legislation that you would most like input or advice on. Say that you will read all the responses. Indicate, that you will also be doing a scientific survey of everyone in your district to see whether the views represented at the town hall are representative of the district as a whole. Then, do a quick overnight telephone survey of 500 people in the district to see whether the key points raised in the town hall match up with what the population of the district thinks. Publicize the results.

If the goal of the town hall is to hear what people have to say, then the suggestions above will accomplish that. If the goal is to “educate” people on what the Congressperson believes, he or she should have a handout ready with a detailed statement and evidence to backup their claims. If the goal is to generate a thoughtful dialogue, a town hall meeting is the wrong format. Better that the Congressperson selected a small statistically representative sample of residents to talk with in an extended conversation for several hours. It might also make sense to encourage the kind of “study circles” that have been used so successfully in Scandinavia to get thousands of people thinking and talking about the issues framed in a study guide. If the goal is to hammer out a consensus with regard to the district’s views, it will be necessary to tap a professional mediator to undertake a district-wide conflict assessment that will produce a “map” of all the relevant stakeholder groups vis a vis the health reform issue and to involve representatives of each of category of groups in formulating an agenda, ground rules, and a process of joint problem-solving.

See the full post at http://theconsensusbuildingapproach.blogspot.com/2009/08/how-should-you-respond-to-noisy-health.html.

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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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