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Difficult residents’ meetings - How to plan, anticipate and prevent them getting out of hand (12 May 18)

Prepare, prepare, prepare - then prepare some more.

Nobody looks forward to a meeting that looks like being tricky or downright acrimonious, but there are quite a few things you can do to make your life easier.

The one thing you mustn’t do is close your eyes and hope it will go away. It won’t; but here are two good things to reflect upon.

First, meetings rarely turn out to be such an ordeal as you sometimes imagine in the middle of the night. And second, you can do a number of quite simple things to make sure things run as smoothly as possible.

Perhaps they could be best summed up by saying that you must do all you can to appear impartial, fair and reasonable.

For all sorts of reasons, this is best achieved by preparing everything in advance.

The chief one is that if you know exactly what are going to do and broadly what you are going to say, you can focus on how you say it and the impression you make. 

A clear purpose
Ensure the purpose of the meeting is very clear so people don’t come with too high expectations - or believing you will solve their problems there and then.

Controversial issues
Get the best advice you can about current thinking on the subject. Look for some facts which will correct the kind of prejudice and bias some controversial issues raise.

Think carefully about how you introduce a controversial issue. Make sure you have support there if the organisation is going to make a view public that you know will rub some people up the wrong way.

Problem people
Often you or some one else in the organisation will know some people may be awkward.

Try to disarm them at the start of the meeting by talking to them. Let them know you appreciate they may have deeply held opinions and look forward to hearing them. But emphasise that it’s only fair that other opinions be heard.

Anticipate some of the things they might say and have a response or course of action ready.

Cliques and alliances
If you can see there is a group sitting together who have formed an alliance, try to identify the leader. Then suggest they speak on behalf of the others. This ensures they are properly represented – but also reduces the number of voices you have to deal with.

Counter intelligence!
It may be helpful to have some “friends” in the audience who will ask for order so that all sides can be heard.

Give people time limits
Introduce the notion of time limits for ‘hot’ subjects. Explain that you are going to limit each speaker to a maximum of two minutes so that as many people as possible have the chance to speak.

Tell people you will give an indication 10 seconds from the end of that time. This helps them wind-up without them feeling they have been interrupted – and at the same time seems fair to others.

Avoid ultimatums
Try to avoid giving final warnings or creating a situation where it is clear that only one possible solution is acceptable.  Allow some bargaining space so that those attending feel they have gained some ground - even if it’s not much.

Eye contact
This is crucial. Don’t sit there with your head buried in your notes. Use your eyes sweep the audience, and where necessary to acknowledge that you’ve seen someone trying to speak. This helps maintain order and prevent people shouting out.

Repeat opposing views
Not always possible but very effective. Once one side has expressed a view, repeat it so the other side has heard and understood it.

Encourage participation from all groups
If before the meeting someone indicated a view but is clearly too shy to speak, do so on their behalf.  “I know there are people here tonight who feel …….and  we need to consider their wishes and feelings too”.

Empathise with people
For example:
“I know you care passionately about this, but if we are to move on, we need to try and keep our tempers so that we hear the different arguments”.

“I realise you disagree completely with some of the views you’ve heard - although we can’t do anything here and now”.
“Many people in the meeting are very angry and you’ve made your feelings very clear. My job is to leave here and try to find a way forward”.

“I know you are not finished and many more would like to speak.  However we have been taking notes and I think we understand your main points.  Let me see if I’ve got them right ….”.“Remember we must focus on the problem and try at the moment to avoid discussing personalities”.

Writing down main points on flip charts
A very effective way to demonstrate that views have been heard and are being taken seriously. Moreover, writing down an outrageous view can end in it being modified by the person or group that originally expressed it.

Re-phrase points
It may help to re-phrase a point in a more measured manner whilst keeping the essential view. You may need to check with the speaker that you have reflected accurately their point.

Try taking a short break
It may help for representatives from each faction to meet with you for a few minutes while the hall is empty.  Try appealing to their better judgement about how to carry on.  (Tea breaks in the middle can have a very positive effect).

Never lose your temper
Best to give in and raise the point at another time. When you sense meetings are getting confrontational, try to summarise where they’ve got to and that this may be a time to pause or stop.

Don’t pass the buck
It’s not a good idea to blame another section of the organisation. From the point of view of the audience you are the organisation.  Accept responsibility then find out who has let you down. Best to accept criticism, apologise on behalf of the organisation and say you’ll follow it up.

Adjourn the meeting
When all else fails you can decide to stop the meeting indicating you will reconvene once you have taken further advice. Some people may be creating a disturbance so that the meeting cannot usefully carry on. You may need to make it clear that you are not going to let matters stay as they are and one way or another democracy will have its day.

Breaking the law!
There are three aspects of the law that can be used to defend action taken at an organised meeting. They are rarely used, however.

1.      The organiser’s right to ask someone to leave, deriving from law about trespassing. The organisers, having invited the public, can withdraw the invitation and ask someone to leave. If they refuse to leave then ‘reasonable force’ may be used.  Not recommended!

2.      Possible action at a public meeting against someone who ‘acts in a disorderly manner for the purpose of preventing the transaction of the business for which the meeting was called’.  Rarely used and the police would normally be called to take it forward. (Public meeting Act 1908).

3.      The police’s powers to prevent a breach of the peace. (Public Order Act 1936). In this case the initiative is with the police who may have been called prior to the meeting by the organisers who were anticipating trouble.  In some public meetings the police may be there as one of the representative bodies. (Saves a phone call!)

Finally if you know the meeting could be contentious make sure you have a colleague with you - and take a mobile ‘phone!

But the truth is that few meetings turn out as badly as your worst fears suggest, and proper management makes all the difference.

Those who go into meetings knowing what they want to achieve and have carefully prepared invariably do best.

To run an in house course on this topic email me at rod@rodlaird.co.uk or phone 0800 612 0910.


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