Town hall meetings are a way for local governments to engage citizens and residents on civic planning and projects, or simply to discuss issues of significance before action proceeds. The thing about a town hall meeting is that they can either get out of hand, or are just uneventful, leaving officials without consensus or all of the information they need.
At every meeting, some participants will be there to speak, others to observe, while the host will try to maintain a meeting agenda and avoid commenting directly on what is said. Here are some ways to ensure that all viewpoints come across and meetings are productive.
Facilitate Your Way to Organize a Town Hall Meeting
Meeting hosts provide a better, more “worthy” meeting experience if they think of themselves as facilitators, according to the California Medical Association (CMA) Alliance guidance.
The town hall meeting facilitator’s job is to organize the flow of the meeting and be democratic about what is said, whether it’s an open conversation or closed policy decision information sharing. However, CMA Alliance suggests meeting facilitators:
- Ask for only constructive and non-repetitive comments
- Tactfully end discussion when comments are getting nowhere or becoming unproductive.
Thanks, now let’s hear from someone else.”
In addition to maximizing the variety of comments and moving on when there is consensus with these strategies, the organization also suggests that when pacing the meeting, the facilitator should be sensitive to the need for discussion.
If participants want a chance to speak and engage each other, give them more time and adjust specified time limits in the agenda.
Set Up Your Town Hall Meeting for Success
When the meeting facilitator and any presenters are on a stage in front of a room, some participants may get the sense that they are there simply to consume information, and do not actually participate.
Vary the seating to increase participation:
- If there is a presentation, it may be possible for a leader to present from the side, while the town hall participants are in the middle.
- If there is no presentation, seating in a circle may give some participants the impression that they are equals in the discussion and feel more welcome to share their perspectives.
If the town hall meeting is discussing more than one issue, it may be possible to set up a focus group within a circle for each issue. This leaderless, doughnut-shaped setup is known as a Samoan Circle, and it’s great for both medium- and large-sized town hall meetings.
Leaders sit in the outer circle, while town hall participants sit in a smaller circle in the center. The purpose of the center circle is that all viewpoints are represented and have a discussion for the other participants and the city leaders to listen to. The outer circle stays quiet.
The facilitator explains the seating arrangements, rules and timelines, and asks for a volunteer that wants to represent each viewpoint in the discussion. Someone from the outer circle who wishes to enter the inner discussion circle can stand behind a chair, and the occupier can relinquish that chair and let the new speaker in.
According to the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, the Samoan Circle is intended for discussions on controversial issues and was developed during a land use study in Chicago. The method can avoid polarization, and allows a number of people to participate in an organized fashion.
Ask Open-Ended Questions to Increase Engagement
Whether it’s a small group, one-on-one or one-on-many discussion, the town hall meeting facilitator can ask open-ended questions to stimulate discussion when things go quiet.
By leading questions with “why” and “how,” it gives participants a chance to respond to the question and share their viewpoint without answering with a flat “yes” or a “no” response.
Use Multiple Recording Devices
In the Samoan Circle, conversation can be centered to one small area. But for most other types of town hall meetings or where multiple engagement formats are used, it’s essential to be prepared with multiple ways to both hear and record comments.
Setting up one or two areas for microphones can ensure comments are recorded in a large presentation-led discussion, and it may also help to better organize open conversation. Participants will have to wait their turn for a microphone, making it easier for the facilitator to end repetitive comments and move on to the next person.
Once recorded, make sure the comments are written and posted on the town website as well as through its social media and communication channels.