July 31, 2007

Heckle schmeckle

Here's another news story about a governing body that can't figure out how to get its public comment period under control.

I posted earlier this month about a county commission that came close to purchasing a $2,700 machine to time speakers during their public comment period. That chairperson found it awkward to interrupt speakers when their time was up.

In the new story, Canterbury Connecticut's First Selectman Neil Dupont Sr. has completely banned public speaking at Board of Selectmen meetings "because it was getting out of hand."

The state chapter of the ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the city after a resident was barred from speaking in December, claiming that the board is violating state and federal freedom of speech laws.

There has been no public comment since March, and there have been no selectmen meetings since June 22.

With rules, time limits and consequences, according to selectman Christopher Johnson, order can be maintained. So what's the problem here? It reminds me of a question I was asked the other day about hecklers.

There are basically two kinds of hecklers. One heckler will repeatedly try to contribute to the discussion (aka dominating it), make jokes, or even challenge the speaker in order to show how smart he is, but he's not out to disrupt the presentation. The other heckler takes pleasure in messing with the speaker and seeing the speaker's discomfort and stress, and tries especially hard to discredit the speaker if possible.

The majority of hecklers will be Heckler #1, and what Heckler #1 wants is to be heard and acknowledged.

Sometimes there are people in the room who know your subject as well as or better than you - and they want everyone to know it. So why not accommodate them? Let them know that their question is appreciated, take it seriously and answer it to the best of your ability. And make sure the audience knows that all of their questions and concerns are welcome.

Part of your preparation should always be to anticipate what people will ask, including the tough questions.

The more insidious heckler, Heckler #2, is a challenge to deal with, but not impossible. The most important thing to remember with all hecklers, but especially Heckler #2, is not to let him get to you. No matter how upset, frustrated, or angry you are, you must not feed his desire to break you.

Keep your answers brief, factual, and to the point. Look the heckler in the eye and show him that you are not afraid and that you are in control of the situation. Then move on!

When a heckler continues to dominate the discussion, it's okay to ask the person to speak to you afterward, because you have an entire audience to serve, not just one person (no, don't say that out loud). The way you handle the heckler will be noted by the audience and will have an effect on their overall impression of you and ability to relate to and trust you.

I'm not saying that it should be easy for these city and county government officials to handle their public, but I am saying that it's possible. And with proper training in communication skills, leadership skills and group dynamics - and a good sense of humor - these ruling bodies should be able to get their public comment times under control.

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