USA Today reports that Republicans "who are vulnerable in competitive congressional districts" are avoiding town hall meetings this spring.

What's the problem?

Quite simply, members of Congress want to avoid "uncomfortable public exchanges with the citizens they represent," especially since many constituents are unhappy with their representatives over their efforts to repeal Obamacare.

The move away from public forums have been going on for months, especially since many town hall meetings have degraded into heated and hostile exchanges. As David Pasch, spokesperson for Rep. Peter Roskam (D-Ill.), explained, "Large, structured events tend to devolve into shouting matches. Both sides compete with each other over who can scream the loudest."

If you're an elected official, or even a senior leader in an organization, how can you best deal with challenging forums like town hall meetings? Here are seven proven techniques for when participants are emotional about a topic:

  1. Manage your own expectations for what the town hall meeting will accomplish. Many leaders have grown used to the idea that they will always have a chance to get their message across. But contentious sessions won't necessarily let leaders express a well-reasoned argument--their main function is to let people vent. So understand that the town hall won't be a perfect situation, but the most important part is that you're listening.
  2. Decide which size group works for your situation. A big part of the problem that members of Congress have had is that there are too many participants (for the size of the room and for the time allotted). Then people become angry because they don't have a chance to speak. Use a lottery system to limit the number of people at any one session (but consider holding more than one session).
  3. Create a message framework--and stay on message, no matter what. This may get repetitive, but it's essential to decide for leaders to decide what their position is and then stick to it. (And, yes, you may not be able to deliver your message as completely as you want, but stick to your story in small sound bites.)
  4. Make sure you have enough facilitators/aides to help run the meeting. The leader should not facilitate; his/her role is to speak and respond, not worry about logistics like timing and how the meeting will flow. Assign clear roles and run a full dress rehearsal, with staff members playing the role of participants.
  5. Set ground rules. It's completely fair to let participants know the rules of the road. For example, each participant gets to speak for a certain number of minutes. And the leader will listen, then respond as completely as he/she can before moving on to the next question/comment.
  6. Start the session with a poll that everyone can participate in. Use a platform like Poll Everywhere that allows users to vote instantly on their smart phones on a given topic and see results in real time. You can create several multiple-choice questions to use as an icebreaker. Or create an open-ended poll, where you ask a question and participants choose a one-word answer, then a word cloud is created. The benefit of doing so is that all participants have a chance to express their opinions right off the bat, and you immediately answer overall concerns. So you release some pent-up energy.
  7. Commit to keeping the conversation going after the meeting. This can be low-tech: Give participants index cards on which they write additional questions/comments on and pledge to responding on an electronic forum. Or it can be social: Set up a chat or group on Facebook or another platform. The point is to give people additional opportunities to participate.

A town hall meeting may not be the most fun you've ever had. But, as I've written many times, communicating face to face is always better than hiding out in your office.

Published on: Apr 11, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.