Shout It, Shout It, Shout It Out Loud: Lessons for Leaders from the Health Care Town Halls

Posted 08.12.2009

Townhallrage You’ve no doubt seen the videos of members of Congress such as Arlen Specter and Claire McCaskill conducting (or, more accurately, trying to conduct) town hall meetings on health care reform. This seems to be rapidly turning into the summer of the shouters. My friend and blogging colleague John Baldoni picked up on this trend and posted a solid piece this week on how speakers should deal with an unruly crowd. My concern is that with all of the cable TV coverage of the health care shouters, leaders in other domains may soon face more of this behavior in town hall meeting type settings. The health care town halls feel like the latest example of how the bar for what passes as civil discourse in our country keeps getting lowered.  

So, with the goal of prepping you for leading and communicating effectively the next time you face a contentious group, I want to recap John’s good advice, see what we can learn about what not to do from Senator Specter and share with you a lesson I learned when I had to defend a tax increase to a bunch of beer fueled construction contractors twenty years ago.

John Baldoni offers three tips for leaders who think they might be walking into a verbal shoot out (or should that be shout out?).  The short, bold faced tips that follow are John’s with my own commentary inserted.  Be sure to read John’s post to get his take. It’s good stuff.

1.       Be Prepared:  John makes the great point that you need to really know your content backwards and forwards before a tough meeting. I would add that an equally important part of the preparation process is to visualize how you want to come across to the group. If you can get a handle on the sort of energy you want to project before you walk into the room, you’re much more likely to actually project it.

2.       Be Flexible:  I probably learned the most about this one years ago when I was a regular adult Sunday School teacher. In the group discussions, we would invariably have a few people who would lob verbal hand grenades into the conversation. Over time, I learned that the best way to handle that was to let them say their piece, acknowledge their comment without agreeing and then bring the conversation back to the main theme. Most people in the room appreciated that and would help bring the conversation back to the point with their own comments. Town halls are a different setting for sure (especially when they’re filled with people who are coming with the express intent of being disruptive), but I think the principle of flexing by acknowledging without agreeing applies.

3.       Be Resolute:  As much as anything, I think this piece of advice from John is about setting some ground rules up front about how the meeting is going to work (e.g. take turns, questions come from the floor mics and not shouted from the audience, we’re going to listen to each other, etc.) and then enlisting the audience’s help in enforcing the ground rules.  The key is to establish them up front.  It’s too late to set ground rules once the meeting has gotten out of hand.

If you want to see an example of how not to follow this good advice, take a look at this clip of Senator Arlen Specter getting in the grill of a constituent at a town hall earlier this week. No thought about how a leader should show up, no acknowledgment of the other person and no apparent ground rules.  (Ground rule numbers 1 and 2:  the speaker should never approach the audience member as if they’re looking for a physical confrontation and the speaker should avoid getting into a shouting match with the audience member.)

And, finally, one more piece of advice based on my experience with that beer fueled audience 20 years ago. Keep your sense of humor.

Here’s the story. Back in my young adulthood, I was the Deputy Director for the Governor’s Office of Community and Industrial Development in West Virginia. Like a lot of political jobs, it was one where I had way more responsibility than I was actually ready for. Early in the administration, the Governor pushed a tax increase through the legislature.  A few weeks later, the Putnam County Home Builders Association asked the Governor to speak to their regular meeting.  He passed on that opportunity and so did his chief of staff.  I was the third string choice to give a speech.

The speech was scheduled for 6:30 pm in a private room at the local Ponderosa Steak House.  I showed up about 6:15 pm for what I thought were the closing moments of the social hour before the speech.  The refreshments were a couple of laundry tubs of iced-down Coors Lights. Everyone was having a good time.  So good, in fact, that they decided to extend the social hour to 7:30 or so.  There were plenty of Silver Bullets for everyone.  Even in my inexperienced stage of development, I began to figure out that this might be a tough crowd.

When I finally got up to speak at 7:45, the fun really started. It turned out that all that a room full of construction contractors really wanted to talk about was how that tax increase was going to kill their businesses.  They made that known loudly and immediately. They could not have cared less about all the wonderful things I had prepared to say about the Governor’s plans for economic development.

I’m not exactly sure how or why, but after 10 minutes or so of getting pummeled, I just laughed and said let’s acknowledge the obvious that you don’t care what I have to say and you tell me what you want me to take back to the Governor and his staff.   I think the fact that I was able to keep a bit of a sense of humor was the only thing that saved me that night.  It helped get at least a few of the guys slightly on my side. 

Showing a little non sarcastic humor in a tense situation can help remind everyone that we’re all human beings just trying to do the best we can.  It reestablishes connection when it’s most needed.  I guess what it comes down to is not taking yourself so seriously that you set up an us against them dynamic.

I’ve rambled on more than usual here, but would love to get your thoughts and experiences on how to handle a tough crowd or meeting.