Blog Article Collection

The Public Meeting That Never Ends

Added on: 13-Dec-16 12:00am

Author: Stuart Waters

At the end of 2016 I have one question for you. How does it feel to be trapped inside a public meeting that never ends? I ask because, having watched the Brexit vote and the US Presidential elections among other things, I am convinced that we have all come together in one giant, brainless town hall meeting called the internet.

In my years as a consultant, trainer and facilitator I’ve been called upon to run all sorts of meetings, from sophisticated events full of learning and wisdom to the whole torches and pitchforks thing. These experiences have clearly demonstrated what we all know. When people get together we can be wonderfully wise and thoughtful, or we can be ignorant, angry and thoughtless.

Smartly designed conversations bring out our best while a bad public meeting brings out the cave dweller in each of us.

Looking at global events in 2016 I’m afraid that we all risk being trapped in a global public meeting that we can’t escape. Consider the following:

  • Public meetings don't encourage listening. Rather they encourage grandstanding, tub-thumping and bluster. Isn’t this what our fractured, multi-channelled public discourse delivers in spades?
  • In public meetings we sit with our ‘tribe’ and make no attempt to reach out to the ‘other’. We stay in our ‘ghettos of the like-minded’ and seek comfort in the affirmation of those who think just like us. I watch Fox News, you watch CNN.
  • In public meetings we attack both the message and the messenger. We demonise those who say things we don’t want to hear, which is pretty much anything they say. We call them names and denigrate them. Twitter and Facebook at their worst.
  • And finally, public meetings are all about positions and opinions and not at all about exploring what really matters to us or finding common ground. Again, Facebook anyone?

My point is that the social media structures that support our public discourse are not set up to bring out our best, but to pander to our worst.

So yes, the level of public discourse and decision-making is low and getting lower. But it isn’t that people are dumb in any way. It is just that the internet has invited us to a meeting that was always going to deliver really terrible outcomes, as badly-designed public meetings always do. We are all doing our best within the constraints of the system in which we find ourselves.

Which leads us to the hopeful part of this story. To get better outcomes and better relationships we have only to find ways to encourage more deliberation, more genuine exploration of ideas, more listening and more diversity. As any good facilitator knows, none of that is hard to do and when we bring people together in this way there is no limit to the wisdom we can display.

Here is to a wiser and more respectful 2017.

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