Are Disrupted Town Hall Meetings an Evolutionary Opportunity?

Disturbance represents
diverse life energies
trying to find their place
in the next wave of Life. 

 

Dear friends, 

We are watching some intense disturbances in the public debate over health care.

Before I explore them, I offer this full disclosure statement: Personally, I am in favor of a deep transformation and integration of our health care systems — rather than reform of our medical and insurance systems. Such transformation would feature preventive and integral healing. It would free health care as a whole from monopolistic special interests and ideologies of all kinds. It would acknowledge the complexity of who we are as human beings, the vital role of our natural and social contexts, and the deeper dynamics of Life and our place in Its Story. There are many approaches to doing this, few of which I see in the current mainstream debate over “health care reform.” 
 
Furthermore, although I support much of Obama’s articulated vision, I am (as are many others) concerned over the extent to which his administration does not so far manifest it in practice. 
 
So I don’t fit comfortably in any of the current “sides” in the health care debate.
 
On the other hand, I am well known for advocating high quality dialogue and deliberation as central to revitalizing democracy — and as a pre-condition for the conscious evolution of civilization.
 
So with that clear, I want to take a look at the dysfunctional health care debate as an opportunity for evolutionary action. Not because health care is more important than other issues, but because its current dynamics exemplify the kind of transformational potentials we will face over and over in coming years, as the multifaceted crises of our time unfold. Understanding the dynamics of this currently disturbing event may help us prepare better for each new wave of opportunity.
 
 
“TOWN HALL MEETING” DISRUPTIONS
 
It is with some concern that I’ve been reading news of disruptions at “town hall meetings” that members of Congress who support the Democratic approach to health care reform are holding during the current Congressional recess.

 

 

 
There are signs that the disruptors are being organized by right-wing Republicans and corporate health care interests, not so much to air their concerns as to throw the meetings into confusion and garner media attention.

 

 

 
Not all opponents of Democratic proposals for health care reform are disrupting public discourse. While some Republican leaders support the confrontationalists, others like Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and John McCain have distanced themselves from them.

 

 

 
Several largely Democratic unions who have vowed to keep order at these “town hall meetings” have received threats of serious violence, including death threats.

 

 

 
Extremist media, hot emotions and special-interest involvement are calling up extreme imagery and fears. Some see this systematic disruption and increasingly polarized confrontation as a sign of emerging fascism in the United States, reminiscent of violent confrontations between Nazis and Communists in the 1930s.

 

 

On the other side, some Right-wing spokespeople are attacking Obama and his health care reform as Nazi.

 

 

 
 WHAT ABOUT REAL DIALOGUE AND DELIBERATION?
 
On the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) listserv, there has been a flurry of creative commentary and brainstorming about this situation and how to address it. (If you aren’t already familiar with NCDD, I strongly recommend exploring their website http://ncdd.org .) Some NCDD members shared some of the concerns above, as well as making other useful observations. Here are my versions of parts of the NCDD conversation I found most useful.
 
* Many of the elected representatives who organized these “town hall meetings” apparently hoped to use them to promote the Democratic health care agenda more than providing an opportunity for real dialogue to really hear all views or a deliberation to clarify issues and make recommendations. So in a sense they invited disruption from those who felt unheard. (Therapists and facilitators know that when some part of a person or group feels unheard, it slips underground and/or shows up with increasing and often dysfunctional energy.)
 
* These “town hall meetings” co-opt the empowered, participatory reputations of traditional Town Meetings in New England and Switzerland http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town_meeting , but are less empowered and often less participatory http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town_hall_meeting . Too often they are more like the usual “public hearing” gripe sessions, where attendees take turns giving three minute speeches and there is little true dialogue or deliberation. This design sets the stage for vested interests or activists to use the forum to try directly impacting public officials, sidelining other concerned citizens.
 
* When people are organized specifically to disrupt, it is hard to deal with them with normal facilitation practices. IF there were real intention for democratic dialogue and deliberation, there would be legitimate cause to break the larger crowd into individual tables or topic areas where there would be more chance for everyone to speak and less opportunity for one person to take over the whole gathering — and to have police present to maintain (and where necessary enforce) civility. However, to the extent the event is organized to promote a partisan agenda or the mere APPEARANCE of public participation, such order-creating strategies become manipulative rather than facilitative.
 
 
SEEKING SOLUTIONS AND TRANSFORMATIONAL INITIATIVES
 
Triggered by alerts from several members, Sandy Heierbacher, NCDD Director and co-founder, initiated the listserv discussion with requests for stories of successful health care dialogues and successful facilitator interventions in disruptive
situations. Most importantly, from my perspective, Sandy concluded with: “What else do you folks think ‘we’ should do, as a community of practice? What’s possible and do-able in this short timeframe? What can we do to better react to situations like this one in the future? This is a scary situation for our democracy, but I know our community has so much to offer.” And with these questions, she opened the door to a lot of creative thinking.
 
I think of this whole response as one model of how change agents can address emerging crises as opportunities. In this spirit, I have also raised the idea with Sandy of initiating an “Opportunity Response Network” of NCDD members who, if called upon in a crisis, would drop whatever they were doing for long enough to check out the crisis situation and, if they had time, volunteer to think together about how to collectively respond.
 
But let’s turn back to the ideas the NCDDers came up with for how to think about and address this particular disruptive situation and ones like it. I’ve summarized and added to some of their ideas below, and occasionally quoted them. I’ve kept them anonymous, since unlike Sandy they have not agreed to this level of public visibility.
 
 
MAKING A GOOD CONVERSATION
 
What advice might NCDD have for the convenors and moderators of public forums on public issues? One member suggested “developing a set of rules (or a protocol for developing those rules) that would sufficiently balance the need for these meetings to serve as (safe) public rituals for venting as well as for actual engagement of the issues.”
 
Others talked about the need to be clear about the purpose of the gathering — and to make sure the title of the meeting clearly communicates that purpose. If it is really for “hearing the public” or “thinking about the issue”, say so. And publicize it well enough that a wide variety of people attend, not just the activists with agendas. Also be clear about the intention and nature of the facilitation, which will be different, depending on the purpose or goal of the meeting.

For example, if it is supposed to be a public hearing, be honest about that and facilitate it accordingly. As one NCDDer said, “most Congressmen just want to have a basic ‘listening session’: (1) Their constituents listen to his/her perspective from Washington, and (2) he/she then listens to the individual constituents’ perspectives. That type of meeting format is very basic and (relatively) straightforward.  In essence, the Moderator would say something like: ‘After Congressman ______ speaks, I will open the meeting to statements from the public.  Based on the number of people here today, I will give each person two minutes to speak.  Then I will use the remaining time to moderate a Q&A session with the Congressman.  If you have specific questions, please wait until then.”‘

Another NCDDer explains how he introduces his role in an actual deliberation: “My job is to elicit the best ideas from each you: I am here to facilitate the best of your ideas, regardless of ideology. My job is to be a honest vehicle of clarification or challenger of ideas. I do not take position of asking ‘leading’ or ‘loaded’ questions that bias the conversations; instead I’ll ask questions like, ‘Why do you believe this to be true?’ or ‘Can you explain your position further?’ or ‘If we believe in universal health care, will this approach result in explicit rationing of health care beyond our current system?’ or ‘Are we willing to accept the trade-off of higher taxes to pay for health care coverage?’ and so forth. We are here to listen, think independently, judge independently, weigh difficult choices based on our individual values and beliefs, and together make decisions on what we would like to have for our communities, moreover how we would like to be represented in our political choices for our future.”  
 
It is essential to have clear ground rules and a moderator or facilitator. One NCDDer said, “In my town, we have a Moderator who is in charge of conducting our annual ‘Town Meeting’ (i.e., the real ‘New England-style’ town meeting). A few years ago, when a citizen-speaker ignored a warning by the Moderator and continued to speak, the Moderator instructed the attending police officers to escort the ‘gentleman’ out of the meeting. And, after he was escorted out, the meeting continued. Civility, and respect for Order, was maintained.” Another wrote: “It is important to think about the venue itself and exit and entry strategies, the facilitators, the balance between safety and openness for participants, the communication component between event planners and facilitators, the need for onsite mediators separate from facilitators for non-event related or high intense conflicts that happen and might detract from other participants, the methodologies employed for how and when security personnel will be engaged, the leadership of who makes decisions at these actual events on the day, chain of command for decision making, crisis management plan and pre-event engagement strategies to ensure that the voices of those who might protest are at least addressed and their leaders are sought out BEFORE a crisis happens.”

The issue of conflict and disruption naturally raises the issue of people feeling heard. Few interventions are as powerful as authentic listening. In some “alternative” gatherings, specially trained “peacemakers” handle most disruptions by individually engaging and empathically hearing the disrupters, radically reducing the need for “enforcement”. There are some compelling stories of public forums where skinheads or angry people who see themselves seriously oppressed or abused by other participants have been well heard by the facilitator and thereby transformed into positive participants in the conversation.
 
Certain methods like Nonviolent Communication and Dynamic Facilitation specialize in hearing people in very powerful ways. If you are a partisan in the health care battle, you could even go to such an event with a sign that says “Democrat (or Obama supporter) willing to listen” and then do active listening, with empathic reflection of what you hear — which will have power to the extent it is an authentic effort to understand. Related to this is translating conflicts into something that can be positively addressed. Consensus Process and Dynamic Facilitation translate conflicts into concerns and then seek ways to address those concerns. Nonviolent Communication approaches it by accessing the deep needs underlying the conflict, and seeking to satisfy them in less conflicted ways. Principled Negotiation deconstructs conflicted positions into “legitimate interests” and brings the parties together to satisfy those interests. Even when these processes can’t be applied in their standard form, this principle of “translating conflicts” can be applied “on the run.”
 
Furthermore, both to facilitate conversation and impede disruption, planners can organize participants into smaller groups so each person has more chance to speak and there is less chance of one person or interest group hijacking or disrupting the whole meeting. This approach is used, for example, in World Cafe, Study Circles, and AmericaSpeaks’ 21st Century Town Meetings.
 
There are also ways to help the whole meeting “feel heard.” Most importantly, no matter what approach is used, Congresspeople should have a way of recording and collecting what citizens say, to inform themselves, their staff, media, lobbyists, and their other constituents. And they should let participants know they are doing that. If they want to be really creative about it, public officials can join in a dialogue (like a World Cafe) and, at the end of the event, publicly reflect on what they’ve heard. The more thorough and authentic they are in doing this, the more profound effect it will have on those attending.
 
 
MAK
ING A GOOD DELIBERATION

 
In addition to the suggestions above, a good deliberation — an actual wrestling with the complexities of the issue — would have characteristics like the following:
 
It is better to work on issues before problematic emotional heat is generated by adversaries. So try to involve people earlier in the process so they can feel they really might have an impact and aren’t being dragged into decisions that have already been made or are almost made. When people are only invited to participate when there is a final battle between (for example) Republican and Democratic proposals for health care, this fact alone invites polarization. When an issue is in “crisis” mode, it is easier to manipulate people with fear and extreme language and imagery; there is less time to get information and issues clarified; there is less patience on all sides to delve into the actual complexities; and nonpartisans get the sense they are being sold false alternatives. One NCDDer said “While it certainly appears that a few extremists are attempting to disrupt any real dialogue, I doubt they would be able to do so without a broader segment of the public who is feeling frustrated, uneasy, and left out.”
 
Also, in deliberation, it is very important to provide balanced information and a spectrum of possibilities, rather than the organizers advocating a particular position and using the forum to argue for it, sidelining people with other views. The National Issues Forums, for example, has a downloadable “issue briefing book” on “Coping with the Cost of Health Care: How Do We Pay for What We Need?” http://tinyurl.com/lodnyb and discussion guide which anyone can use to engage citizens in productive exploration of very diverse perspectives on this issue.
 
It is also important to define the forum as clarifying and wrestling with trade-offs (“we can’t have everything, so what do we most want”) — and to include clarification of the values that are embodied in different approaches, and what values are most important to the citizens attending the deliberation. As one NCDDer put it: “what would happen if these legislators called for their constituents to come together to really think through what they like and don’t like about the bill, and what tradeoffs they were and were not willing to make.”
 
 
IMPACTING THE BROADER PUBLIC
 
Promoting to Congresspeople and their aides the knowledge of how to run more effective meetings is only half the story. Ultimately, we want to bring to the whole society this awareness of how creatively we can come together — not only in spite of our differences, but by using those differences well.
 
One idea is to convene “mini-publics” — small groups who collectively embody the diversity of the country — to wrestle well with the issue in full public view. The main NCDD advocate of this approach suggested that we “(1) bring together a small group of people (6-12) with VERY DIVERGENT perspectives initially on the issue, and reflecting very different social backgrounds; (2) hold a two-day facilitated event AND FILM IT, and (3) use the footage to produce one or more 30 second clips, one or more 2 minute clips, and one 10-minute piece, and (4) widely air those pieces as part of a public education campaign on the POSSIBILITY and value of constructive dialogue.”
 
Of course, once we have such videos, there are many different uses for them. Most obviously, they could be posted on YouTube. Various organizations could point to them as representing a better way to do politics. One particularly intriguing idea is to show them at the beginning of actual public dialogues and deliberations. The NCDDer who proposed these “mini-public” videos in the first place noted that “starting a ‘town hall meeting’ with a short video clip, of people from a wide variety of political positions, stating their positions in heartfelt yet civil ways, and being heard, and responding to one another, would be an excellent way to ‘set the tone’ for these kinds of meetings.”

Another NCDDer suggested that we need more hip or emotional videos less concerned with displaying good political discourse and more about grabbing people’s attention — “witty videos to introduce the concept of deliberation to the average person. Not just talking heads, or people sitting around a table, but something clever and tongue-in-cheek funny — further tweaking gut-level interest with ‘what if’ questions that strike at the heart of what ordinary Americans feel and fear the government is or isn’t doing for or to them.”

Until we have such videos, sharing stories of good public issue discussions can also be helpful.
 
Speaking of stories, it is vital to engage and use the news media. Invite journalists, bloggers, pundits, and others to cover such events — and especially to interview participants before, during, and after. Educate journalists about the different quality conversations and events that are possible, so they note that in their coverage. Make them aware that juicy, creative public dialogue and deliberations are hot news — that there is real conflict, but that the conflict ends up being used creatively — a key point in democracy.

Finally, those of us who realize the possibilities contained in this bulletin can write letters to the editor or Op Eds in which we use the conflicts, disruptions and violence to let the public know how different and actually useful and powerful it could be. We can urge them to urge their representatives to use more creative forms of public engagement. We get the kind of democracy we demand.
 
 
GETTING IT TO HAPPEN
 
It is one thing to have great ideas. It is another to make them happen. It is obviously desirable to write directly to Congresspeople and introduce them to these new options. But there’s more…
 
One of the most challenging and exciting possibilities is for existing networks of practitioners to organize (individually or together) to respond creatively to such crises/opportunities. Networks like NCDD, the International Association of Facilitators, the International Association for Public Participation, and individual practice networks like the Open Space Institutes, the World Cafe community, National Issues Forums, and the Institute of Cultural Affairs can take coordinated action.

There’s a caution here: Individual practitioners can work with their own representatives on this — and can be organized by their networks to do so more effectively. But if organizations take action on this officially, they should do it in either nonpartisan or bipartisan ways so as not to be tainted with partisanship dynamics or labels. Allying with the League of Women Voters is one route. They are seen by most people in the U.S. as a neutral convenor — although many on the far Right see them as far Left.
 
Another approach is to get one or two Congresspeople from each party to TOGETHER sponsor public dialogue and deliberation that would demonstrate respectful, productive conversation among very diverse citizens. One NCDDer noted that “good representatives are looking for those authentic voices amidst the clamor. We should identify people from both parties who fit that description and start developing a relationship with them.”
 
Another great opportunity has to do with timing. In the fall health care legislation from the Senate and the House of Representatives will go to conference committee to resolve differences between those two versions. So that is another time when shift is possible, and public conversations can be planned around that, ahead of time. It is the evolutionary equivalent of lobbying: It is intended to influence legislation, but not in a particular direction — just in a more thoughtful, informed, authentic way.  
In the meantime
, no one has to wait on politicians and activist organizations. Anyone inspired can get good dialogues and deliberations going in their area using meetup.com, Facebook, and other social networking sites.
 
 
INCREASING TRANSFORMATIONAL POTENTIAL

 
One NCDDer questions the whole “public hearing” approach, noting how frustrating it often is to all involved, and how often it therefore invites vehement reactions from those who feel unheard. She said, “I think we need to offer, to the people whom we may disagree with when it comes to content, the very same effective and participatory processes that any of us might want, if we were becoming active on an issue that we care passionately about.” She means truly substantive, interactive dialogue and deliberation — and, above all, real listening.
 
She pointed to how powerful real listening can be: “I once had the enormous privilege of witnessing Cruz Reynoso, vice-chair for the U.S. Commission of Human Rights under both Clinton and Bush, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, take testimony for a Sonoma County hearing on local police brutality. After each person spoke, while Cruz Reynoso listened intently and respectfully, he would offer a brief reflection of that person’s statement.. He would find SOMETHING to validate or ‘join’ with, in what they had said, even if there were other things that he may have disagreed with. He did this with a combination of dedication, one-pointedness, kindness, and humility, that was awe inspiring… Truly a model of what it means, not just to listen, but to let another human being know that they have been heard.”
 
Along a different vein, some NCDDers noted that standard deliberation methods can sometimes be used to channel people’s thinking into existing agendas. They stressed that we can instead use methods that encourage people to be creative, to explore new possibilities, and not be limited to just a few mainstream options. Existing options can be useful for education and to move people beyond habitual comfort zones and ways of thinking, but then we should help free citizens to move even more freely toward what they really want.
 
As part of this, we can help people think more systemically about what they need for a healthy community or country. A lot of what are presented as separate issues are, in fact, very interconnected. As one NCDDer said, “Maybe our approach should be to convene conversations that look toward a wholistic vision for our neighborhoods, communities and country, not just healthcare.”
 
Finally, it may be important to look below the presenting issue to the underlying factors that generate so much disruptive heat about it. For example, we could have more deep dialogue about race and power, because it seems clear that much of the anger and violence we see here arises not so much from specifics about health care proposals, but from insecurities associated with having a black president, and what his election means for those who feel threatened by it.
 
 
CONCLUSION
 
For me the essence of all this is not in all these brilliant ideas, as valuable as they are. What excites me is the fact that a potentially infliuential group moved beyond ignoring or suppressing energies and perspectives they didn’t like and took the opportunity to explore responses to a crisis that might shift the whole system, from the ways people interact to the ways whole societies pursue more wholesome visions. To me, this is the beginnings of truly evolutionary activism. Although it is just a beginning, I see it as a model for the direction we need to go.
 
What is that direction? What does it look like?
 
It looks like this: When disturbing things happen, we take a moment to wonder: What is missing here that, if it were present, would allow this situation to unfold much more creatively? What is this dissonance trying to teach us? What do my responses tell me I need to learn? What is wanting to emerge — “good” and/or “bad” — that this dissonance is a prelude for? What life-energy is showing up in this disturbance that could and should be part of a larger, more inclusive whole? What is more possible now than it was before this happened? How can I/we use this opportunity to shift the whole system in more positive, life-affirming directions?
 
I like to think that these are some of the questions that evolution asks itself as it meets its next opportunity to make a conscious shift into a better fit, a more life-giving whole.
 
Coheartedly,
Tom

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