individuals who are known to be fair-minded and nonjudgmental.
Since our facilitators come from the college community and are
often familiar with the concerns raised, they are cautioned not to
comment on any speaker’s remarks. They also do not summarize
or paraphrase comments made, since microphones are used and all
can hear the speakers, and repetition would take time from audience participation.
The facilitator’s role is to remind every one of the ground rules, recognize those who will give the opening statements, announce that
the microphones are open for audience participation, and keep the
process moving. The facilitator asks speakers to identify themselves
as a way of helping to personalize the process. Throughout the session, the facilitator reminds everyone that the microphones are open
and informs the audience when closing statements will be given.
The ground rules are simple. After the opening statements by the
president of the college, faculty senate, and student government,
those interested in speaking line up at a microphone. When it is their
turn, they identify themselves and can use their two minutes to
speak about whatever they choose. Some come prepared with written texts, some become overcome with emotion, and some arrange
to come with allies to reinforce their message. If no one else is waiting at any of the microphones, a speaker can speak for an additional
two minutes until someone else approaches a microphone. If others are on line at any of the microphones, speakers have one minute
to conclude their statement. Individuals may speak more than once
unless there is someone at a microphone who has not as yet had an
opportunity to speak. The key is to maximize audience participation
and allow for as many voices to be heard as possible.
To assist with time management and the perception of fairness,
a digital clock is positioned in a highly visible place so that everyone
can see how much time a speaker has left. The clock is equipped
with a buzzer that alerts the speaker when his/her time is up. After
each speaker, the timekeeper resets the clock.
Like all good conflict resolution processes, preparation for the
town meeting is essential. A committee meets regularly to plan and
debrief the town meetings, the ground rules are printed and made
available at each town meeting, microphones are set up, and light
refreshments ordered. All key administrators are strongly encouraged to attend, since questions may come up regarding their area of
INSTITUTIONALIZING APPROACHES TO MAKE TALK
WORK: HOW IS THE MODEL SCALABLE/REPLICABLE?
There is a vast difference between a town meeting held as a one-shot response to a situation, usually some form of crisis, and town
meetings that are institutionalized as part of an organization’s culture. The latter include shared meanings, norms, and knowledge
that has been embraced by the community over time. Members of
the community come to view town meetings as a place where matters can be raised, even if there are countless other venues to do so.
The town meeting is the one forum where all can gather and where
the spotlight can be shined on a situation in a way that no constitu-ency-specific gathering can.
Sustaining such forums requires that those who hold leadership
roles participate. The tone has to be set by the top leadership by
attending and expecting others to do so, since the matters raised
are usually unpredictable. If an issue is complicated, or necessary
information is lacking, arrangements are made to meet again to
deepen the discussion or explore options.
Unlike some conflict resolution processes that aim to problem
solve, town meetings may or may not serve that purpose, since
they act more as a venting forum. Nonetheless, when matters
are aired, some concerns, like rumors or misinformation, can be
resolved on the spot, and some can be referred to appropriate entities for attention.
Patience and persistence are essential ingredients for institutionalized forums, since some meetings may be boring, some repetitious,
with the same issues being raised or the same individuals attending with new issues. Some of the dreaded long-term issues keep
resurfacing time and time again.
Holding town meetings on a regular basis can provide an ongoing reminder that it is possible to hold respectful conversations. We
commonly hear individuals say they will raise a particular concern at
a future town meeting. Members of the college community have not
hesitated to use the meetings to share concerns from the personal
to the global level. Attendees have raised issues of teaching styles in
the classroom, student services, the non-reappointment of a faculty
member, college policies, public safety, course offerings, the price of
books, tuition hikes, and library hours. Some issues have stimulated
change, including requests for gender-neutral bathrooms, better
access for people with disabilities, and designated meeting space for
And, over the years, many who have come to the town meetings
have told us they have used the format as a model for similar events
in their neighborhoods, academic departments, and student organizations. Visitors from other colleges have expressed an interest in
replicating them on their campuses.
We have found that it “takes a village” for the town meeting to
work in an institutional context. On one occasion when we assisted
another campus to hold a town meeting deemed successful by all,
one administrator said that he would never do it again, since there
was the real potential of being asked embarrassing questions or
questions that he was not prepared to answer. He felt that an
agenda-less forum was much too risky and unnerving. The absence
of influential leaders compromises the sessions’ effectiveness.
Holding a forum as a single event is common, but sustaining
forums over time can be daunting. If we ask what does it take to
sustain an ongoing forum, especially when there are many other
venues where issues can be addressed, as on a college campus, the
resounding answer is that it needs to be seen as a fair, respectful
place where everyone’s voice can be heard.
The potential for regular town meetings to be used as a mechanism to enhance opportunities to air concerns remains untapped. In
some instances, they serve as a diagnostic tool to remedy problem
situations, in others they provide an opportunity to bring closure.
Most importantly, a town meeting enables a community to check
its pulse about what is of interest and of importance to its members, by empowering them to share in their own words during a
short period of time.