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Dealing With an Angry Public

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Contrary to popular belief, angry citizens are not an inevitable and unavoidable part of the decision-making process. With a little advance planning, and some subtle interpersonal tactics, you can avoid triggering citizens’ negative emotions and prevent nasty behavior that disrupts good governance.

People get angry when they feel manipulated, ignored, insulted, made to look ridiculous, or treated in a condescending manner.

Don’t Make ‘Em Mad

Citizens often feel angry when they are frustrated — that is, when they want something and think you are unfairly preventing them from getting it. You can minimize the sense of disappointment and resulting anger by making certain that citizens have realistic expectations: “The hearing on the proposed shopping center isn’t going to come up on the agenda for at least another two hours.” At a public hearing, the chair should describe the agenda and sequence of events, tell the audience when they’ll have an opportunity to speak, and set the ground rules regarding testimony topics or time limits.

People are less likely to feel angry when they understand that their frustration isn’t the result of unfair or arbitrary action. It’s particularly important to explain the appropriate rules when it looks like some people are being granted special rights: “Our adopted rules provide that the project sponsor has fifteen minutes to describe the application, and members of the public are then allowed three minutes apiece.”

People get angry when they feel manipulated, ignored, insulted, made to look ridiculous, or treated in a condescending manner. While it is always important to treat citizens with the respect they deserve, it’s especially critical to do so in potentially volatile situations. …

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