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Public Meetings: Handling Difficult Emotions

Recently I met with a manager at a civil engineering firm, who also happens to be an engineer. We were talking about the work I do designing and delivering talent management programs for green organizations, and my work advising firms on stakeholder engagement came up.

I explained that sometimes I work with leaders to help them learn how to deal positively with the challenging emotions that may come up in public meetings.

“Why would you do that?” he asked me. “We’d want to hire you to handle that kind of thing!”

It was exceedingly clear to me afterward how painful it was for this highly-skilled, scientific and technical leader to deal with the sometimes difficult emotions that come up in a public meeting.

I’m talking about what I call the Big 3 -- Anger, Frustration, and Fear, to name them specifically -- and they’re emotions that on occasion can lead people to behave less than generously, to put it politely, in expressing their concerns.

I didn’t have the heart to burst his bubble, but those challenging emotions also can occur in every other part of our work too -- in meetings with colleagues, in performance reviews, in strategic planning sessions. I can’t be there to manage those situations for him.

Creating a productive meeting -- whether public or internal work meeting -- involves establishing the conditions and practices that support positive conflict. (Yes, I said that.) We hold public (and work) meetings to learn what people think, identify possible problems we may not know about, and figure them out together in many instances; in a democracy, decisionmakers listen to a range of viewpoints in support of good policymaking.

After all, effective meetings are not about sweeping under the rug viewpoints we don’t agree with but creating an environment that’s conducive to positive problem-solving.

Here are four tips to remember when dealing with difficult emotions at public meetings:

  1. Connect Person to Person with the Individual Expressing Emotion. First, connect to the person before you as a fellow human being. Find something to like about them, even if it’s difficult. Some people “seem to push our buttons” naturally, after all. For example, are you both residents of the same community? Do you both have kids?

  2. Don’t Take It Personally. This is not about you. Remember that a person who is expressing anger or frustration in a more animated way often cannot see any way to resolve the situation in a way that’s acceptable to them right now. This is what psychologists call being “stuck,” and it happens to all of us. Speaking out is how they are trying to change the options that are being considered. Remember that emotions may be overflowing because they believe something they hold important (their family, their home, their job, their health, their self-identity, for example) may be affected negatively by what is being discussed at the meeting.

  3. Acknowledge the Concerns of the Person. Do this with respect, just like you would for your boss when you disagree with them. If you agree with the person’s statement, say so. If you don’t, say so if you can do it with respect. Share your view if you can do it briefly and without inflaming the discussion. Don’t try to convince them that their opinion or facts are “wrong” -- this usually leads into a debate, which is not productive for anyone at this point in time.

  4. Take it Seriously. Restate their concern in your own words and ask them if your understanding is correct. “I understand that your concern is XYZ, is that right?” Suggest a resolution or explain the policy involved, if you can do it briefly. If appropriate, conclude by taking note of the concern -- “We’re adding this to the list of concerns that we’ll look into,” for example, or by offering to speak with them offline to answer their questions.

[Emotions are part of any human interaction. Remember that safety always comes first. If you think emotions may run high at a meeting, consult with safety professionals in advance.]

Practice these four steps above in advance of any meeting. The more you practice them, the better you’ll become at dealing with difficult emotions in the moment.

Does one of your technical or scientific team members need help navigating difficult emotions -- or in having challenging conversations with people? Reach out to me for one-on-one coaching or team workshops. I also advise firms on productive stakeholder engagement. You can call me or send me a text at 703-623-4811.

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