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The worst nightmare of anyone who ever organises public consultation evenings or participation meetings is for them to get completely out of hand. After all, people have a view about everything these days, whether it’s windmills, asylum seekers' centres, coronavirus measures, a restructuring at work, the renovation of a school playground or the redevelopment of a neighbourhood.[
The trick is to provide sufficient room for people to express their views and emotions, without bloodshed.

Anyone who has ever organised or led an evening on a controversial topic will recognise this potential nightmare: the invitations have been sent, the coffee has been arranged and the venue has been booked. But what if that angry neighbour hits the roof? Or if the discussion gets out of hand? Navigating your way through an evening like that and keeping things reasonably pleasant can be quite a challenge when emotions are running high.

You cannot prevent people from being angry or distrustful, but you can certainly do everything you can to make sure a potentially incendiary meeting goes well. In that regard, everything you do while preparing and holding the meeting matters. Our top 10 focal points will get you a long way.

The invitation

The invitation sets the tone and creates the right expectations and is therefore a very important first step towards a successful meeting. So you will need to put time and attention into it.

The objective

If you don't already know what exactly you wish to achieve, it will be difficult to write a good invitation. And if the parameters are not clear, you will unintentionally provide scope for all sorts of digressions, hobbyhorses and diversion tactics.

The programme

Make conscious choices regarding the structure and the types of discussion intended; know what works at what time. Don't come across as too creative and jolly when people are really angry (whether they’re right or wrong, it doesn't matter). Try to engage in a more in-depth discussion if participants are willing to provide input and you really value their opinion. And be flexible: change course if a particular form of discussion unexpectedly turns out not to work.

Know and recognise your guests

Know who is coming and what their involvement is in the matter under discussion. Practice how to interact with different types of people: the general, the district mayor, the engineer, Catherine from around the corner, the football supporter, the retiree, people with the facts at their fingertips, and so on (and remember that some people may belong to two or three of these categories at the same time).

Be prepared

Know the backstory. Know the details (nearby street names, distance from the road, etc). Know where the underlying sensitivities are.

Think in scenarios

What should you do if people start shouting during the presentation? Or, if someone drops a bombshell just when you think you have managed to bring the meeting to a successful conclusion without quarrels. Be prepared for this!

Use the opening to your advantage

A good start is half the battle. Strike the right tone and be clear about the programme and the purpose of the session. Position your role as moderator well so that they allow you to lead.

Letting off steam

Someone who is angry (whether justified or not) won’t be able to listen until they’ve been able to vent. All too often, people are asked not to respond before the end of the presentation.

It’s OK if it feels uncomfortable

The moment someone shouts "see, you can't say that here", you know it’s going to be a difficult meeting. Make sure there is space and attention for every point of view, even if the point of view is not what you were hoping for. If, at times like that, you can listen to what people have to say with genuine interest, it will be possible to hold an effective discussion.

Involve everyone

Eloquent participants or vociferous extroverts often determine the course of a meeting. Look for ways to engage the more modest members of the audience as well. That in itself will automatically ensure a more nuanced and reasonable approach.

Talking or presenting

In many cases, long-winded presentations are given, even though an interview or dialogue with the audience is sometimes much more effective. A good moderator can play an important role in that regard and help you choose the right format.

Room layout and technology

This factor is often underestimated. The seating arrangement, the lighting in the venue and the acoustics imperceptibly determine how ‘on board’ people are.

The moderator

Choose them carefully, whether they are from within the organisation (possibly with some training) or an external professional. Find someone who can manage emotions, or even aggression (you should also think carefully about the role of security staff).

A good moderator is also able to read the room (and all non-verbal communication). They know exactly what tone to choose or what attitude to adopt at what time.

In conclusion

During the Workshop Participation or Polarisation we will help you navigate your way around all of the pitfalls, so that you will be alert to risks, can take advantage of opportunities, and can go into the meeting with confidence.

A well-thought-out meeting is worth its weight in gold, even though it may cost you a bit of anxiety to get there.

Marion van der Voort
Hans Etman

Picture: Johann Walter Bantz op Unsplash

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