Lessons from a town hall meeting

I attended my first town hall meeting last night. It was a teleconferenced town hall, which was a pity because I had a funny protest sign in mind. This town hall would also disappoint those who like shouting and screaming. I could only stay for the first hour, so I might have missed some good stuff after I signed off.

I learned some lessons from the experience. You may find them useful regardless of who your elected representative is and how much you agree or disagree with that person.

The importance of listening

I hadn’t been to a town hall before (teleconferenced or in person), so I decided to sit back and listen to what my representative and other constituents have to say. I’m glad I did. I found that other people had the same questions and concerns I did. I was also surprised at the areas where my representative and I were in agreement.

We often don’t listen to each other — especially about politics and most especially right now. We come to political discussions in full battle armor ready to grapple with “the forces of evil and ignorance.” But when we take off the armor (and our preconceived notions), we can have productive discussions, find common ground, and work out solutions.

The importance of well-developed questions

The heart of a town hall meeting comes from the questions we ask our representatives. We are not only seeking answers. Our questions give us a way to express our concerns. “What do you intend to do about…” “We have problems with… How can you help us?”

The best questions of the night challenged inconsistencies in our representative’s positions. “You say you want to reduce government expenditures and cut the federal debt. Then how can you support…which would cost billions of dollars?” “You say you want to protect middle-class families, so why did you vote against…” We can use such questions to keep our politicians honest and encourage them to rethink their positions. But we can only ask those questions if we listen to what has been said.

The importance of civility

Shouting and screaming may feel good and get press coverage. But if you want politicians to listen, you have to be civil. By showing respect to others, we can get respect for our positions. The civility of the town hall enabled it to run smoothly and gave people the chance to ask their questions and express their concerns.

When those at the top are setting bad examples of incivility and disrespect, it’s up to us as citizens to model the behavior we expect from our elected officials. We also don’t want to give those politicians an excuse to ignore us and disregard our concerns. Let’s not play the “if they can do it, so can we” game. If we want America to be a more humane and civil society, it starts with us. And we can start at a town hall meeting.