Jean Johnson, author of the April 2015 EL article “Getting Your Message Out (and Why It’s Not Enough),”explains three questions that can determine whether public meetings enlighten or polarize.
By Jean Johnson
You’ve convened a community meeting to discuss an important school issue. You lay out a problem or proposal and invite questions and comments. Will the meeting strengthen public trust and engagement? How much genuine dialogue will take place? Here are three questions to keep in mind as you head into a public event. How you answer them could determine how well you connect.
- How much time will be devoted to “presenting” versus hearing what people have to say? Describing a problem or proposal clearly and giving people accurate information is obviously step one. But “engagement” has to be more than 15 minutes of Q & A tacked on after an hour of speechifying. Unless there’s ample time for genuine give-and-take with the audience, people are more likely to feel “talked at” than included and respected.
- How will you respond when people disagree with you? Will you focus on trying to understand their perspectives, or will you (as we all tend to do) be mentally dismissing their arguments as they speak. Pushing back against criticism is a natural reaction, but the hallmark of dialogue is the exchange of ideas. It’s not an exercise in persuasion. It assumes that other people have useful questions to raise.
- What will you do afterward? Real listening means mulling over what you’ve heard and thinking creatively about how to address people’s concerns. You’ll never make everyone happy, of course, and an education leader’s first responsibility is to the students, so your ultimate decisions have to reflect what’s best for them. But parents, teachers, and community members often spot potential glitches and complications you might not anticipate on your own. You can’t always accommodate your critics, but taking time to respectfully explain your reasoning allows you to connect with people even when you don’t agree with them.