Hearing Dissent

We’ve all been in a meeting where someone spoke passionately about an idea or proposal, and sometimes that passion has sounded mean-spirited or overly aggressive. I’m sure I’ve done it, too, because when an idea really touches your heart, one tends to speak with more energy than some folks might be prepared to hear. No matter how objective and logical we try to be, we are also emotional beings and sometimes our emotions emerge in ways we, and others, don’t expect.

Where do we see this in our work lives? We see this in workshops and meetings, including in WACD meetings.

New ideas change your Association

When those ideas or thoughts get carried forward with passion during a meeting, they can result in change. In fact, this process of lifting up an idea from the grassroots to become statewide or even national policy is how your Association changes. The resolution process is really just a structured way for an individual to bring their idea forward. It starts when one person has an idea and gains the support of their conservation district board of supervisors. That results in a resolution that is proposed, discussed, and decided at the annual meeting of that district’s area association of conservation districts. If that resolution is passed by the area association, it goes to the WACD annual business meeting for discussion and decision. This is how WACD policy is established.

At any point in that chain of steps, one or more people may object to the idea. While WACD strives to give everyone an opportunity to speak for or against a resolution, sometimes the time limitations imposed by the adopted agenda can result in some people not being heard. This can happen when individuals realize the meeting is going to run long so they don’t speak up, and occasionally when discussion is ended due to time constraints or by a legitimate call for the question.

How can we hear all voices if we stick to the agenda?

Whether it is the resolution process or a conservation district board meeting, we all work within the sideboards established by a meeting agenda. That means having a list of topics and a time limit on the meeting. If a discussion on one item goes too long, it can cause the rest of the meeting to feel rushed. Sometimes topics later on the agenda just get put off until the next meeting because time ran out.

What if we turn this thinking on its head? Instead of trying to make participants conform exactly to the agenda, what if we welcomed comments in a way that made sure that every individual has an opportunity to be heard? This is where I think WACD’s system for hearing dissent could be made more robust.

I’m going to propose an idea that sounds like just the opposite of giving people time to express their thoughts: limit comment time in a meeting. If sticking to the agenda is the accepted meeting practice we follow, we could make sure we stick to the schedule and give everyone a chance to be heard by (a) limiting comment time in the meeting, and (b) if it looks like more comment is desired or needed, schedule another meeting for the purpose of hearing those comments.

Few of the issues we deal with are so urgent that they need to be decided immediately. It is possible that choosing to hold a special meeting later would give folks a chance to cool down and perhaps become better able to hear the diverse ideas and concerns that are voiced when there is plenty of time to hear those thoughts.

While this might not work very well for annual area association meetings or the WACD annual business meeting, it could make for a better way to hear other ideas throughout the year.

Why should we listen to other ideas?

Why would we take more time to hear what people wish to say? Because you must listen to be heard. This is Habit 5 in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood®. People need to know their concerns have been heard before they can accept a decision. If they don’t feel heard, how can they accept that the final decision was reached with all the information needed by the decision-making body to make a good decision?

In an article titled Dealing with Dissenters, the author describes several approaches to those who dissent:

  • Engage early and often.
  • Encourage anticipated dissenters to participate.
  • Be certain that everyone understands the problem you’re solving.
  • Be transparent about your process.

By limiting time in the current meeting and providing a more substantial future opportunity to be heard, you defuse much of the heat that can disrupt your meeting. By giving dissenters more ways to participate in the process, you ensure that they will not only feel heard but will also be heard. When we actually hear their ideas and concerns, we become better able to make the best decisions.

More reading

Some of the more interesting resources I found as I thought about this topic are listed below.

What are your thoughts? We’d like to hear them.

Always yours for conservation,

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director