One day a superintendent of a small school district called me, concerned that a group of angry parents was hijacking school board meetings.  The school board was unable to complete its agenda, as parents in this group would interrupt, often making hurtful comments.  While their concern was legitimate (they were upset over falling test scores), their behavior was not. The superintendent asked if I could help him and the school board regain control over their meetings.

I talked with the board members and suggested that the best way to address the issue was to convene a meeting where people could talk with one another about the issue.  They agreed to my plan.  Here is what we did:

The community was invited to a public conversation about the test score situation. Everyone who wanted to speak would have the opportunity.  However, this was not your typical public hearing.  Instead, people engaged in dialogue.

  • Since this was a small school district, the auditorium had an intimate feel to it and made the perfect site for this meeting.
  • I arranged four chairs in a circle in the center of the stage. Two chairs were reserved for the superintendent and school board.  The other two chairs were open for anyone from the public who wanted to participate.  You could stay in the chair for as long as you liked unless someone else came up to the stage and stood behind you.  You would turn over the chair after your next comment.   
  • At either end easels with flip chart paper were set up to record the conversation.  
  • Before you could make your comment, you had to paraphrase what the person before you said.

At first, the tension in the room was palatable.  And, people forgot to paraphrase.  I would interrupt and ask them to complete the paraphrasing step.  They would have to turn to the person who spoke before them to ask them to repeat their comment.  However, after about 15 minutes, particpants begin paraphrasing on their own and you could sense a shift as people started to listen to each other.  Between listening to each other’s comments and seeing them on the flip chart paper, people began to see that their concerns were being acknowledged.

The conversation continued for about 90 minutes. After everyone who wanted to speak had their say, the meeting came to a close.  While the controversy continued, people were better able to engage in productive dialogue.

Changes did come from this controversy.  A few board members were elected and the superintendent retired, making way for new leadership.  And, they were able to move through those changes with more respect.

Listening can be a powerful force for change.  It may seem counterintuitive because we are used to debating and advocating for our positions.  Often times, though, this just leads to further conflict and little productive conversation. The next time you find yourself mired in conflict, sit back and listen, paraphrase what you heard, and appreciate the power of listening.