What’s happening in this picture of a town hall meeting? We’re not in the room, but we can guess what is going on—there is tension in the room, and emotions are running high. Everyone wants a chance to put in their two cents’ worth. The leadership is becoming defensive. There is not much constructive dialogue going on. Meetings like these can easily spiral out of control.
Town hall meetings are meetings where the leader meets with all the people in the organization to inform them of a policy and/or gather inputs and questions. Sometimes also called “All-Hands”, town halls involve giving everyone the opportunity to bring up a point or ask a question, bypassing the usual hierarchical communication channels. Done well, they can be a forum for the leadership to demonstrate transparency and create a unifying culture. Town halls have a long history in the U.S. and are considered to be a cornerstone of democracy.
I would argue, however, that town hall meetings are undemocratic, for several reasons:
First, opinions that are expressed tend to be skewed toward the loudest, quickest, and strongest. It’s common to see people starting to queue up to the microphone stand before the speaker has even finished speaking, as they’ve already come prepared with what they want to say. The Q&A format tends to reward those who can think quickly and loudly on their feet, and disadvantages those who are more thoughtful or reluctant to speak out in public. There is no vetting of the opinions that get expressed, so there will always be a certain number of people who take the opportunity to generalize a personal issue or deliver a rambling monologue.
Second, in the usual Q&A session of a town hall, there is no way to gauge how representative the concern or question is for the whole group. Do most people in the room share the same concern or question, or only a small minority? Depending on which people happen to take the microphone, it may seem as if the minority view is prevalent, when the opposite is true.
Third, the townhall format doesn’t lend itself to the group developing a deeper understanding of the issues or searching for mutually acceptable solutions. There is no mechanism for opinions to build on each other or opportunities to examine divergent perspectives. As a result, participants often end up feeling dissatisfied and unheard, which is ironic, because town halls are ostensibly held in order for constituents to be heard.
That said, there is something attractive about the idea of town halls. The simplicity of the format, the immediacy of interaction between the leader and constituents, and the sheer presence of everyone in the same room, itself has many benefits. How can we preserve these benefits of a townhall meeting while curtailing its undemocratic characteristics? Stay tuned for my next post…