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The Effective Planning Commissioner

Dealing with Commissioners Who Have Too Little to Say

Thank you all, for your questions and comments after my last column. Keep them coming!

Today we’re going to deal with an issue several planning board chairs asked about. They relate to how to encourage shy members of the commission to speak up. In another column, we’ll talk about how to keep garrulous ones from dominating the discussion. 

One of the many important responsibilities the chair has during the meeting is to make sure each of the commissioners participates in the discussion. From long experience, I do not advise following Robert’s Rules of Order scrupulously. With its strictures on motions, seconds, points of order, and the like Robert’s Rules can be an impediment rather than a help to the orderly flow of a meeting. Unless you need them for legal reasons, use a more relaxed but still fair approach that gives everyone a chance to have a say -- and eventually leads to a conclusion most or all can support.

It is important to realize and honor the different ways people choose to communicate. By watching the body language of the commissioners, you can get valuable clues.

Shy or reticent people often sit back in their chairs, fidget, stare into space, or look down to papers in front them. Although they may be listening intently, their nonverbal behavior signals they do not want to be asked to participate in the conversation.

Illustration of a shy manPeople are silent for a variety of reasons. They may be newcomers to the board who are reluctant to express an opinion on a subject that is relatively unknown to them; genuinely deep thinkers who need to know all the facts before venturing to say anything; or disinterested or bored individuals counting the weeks before their term is over.

Finesse is required to encourage shy or reticent members to speak up. Avoid a common way ... calling on such people outright, “Horace, we haven’t heard from all evening.  What do you think about what we’re talking about?” This may be seen as a frontal attack, needlessly embarrassing and counter productive. Put on the spot, Horace may mumble something and then slink back into his chair, upset with this intrusion and even less communicative.

A productive and positive way to involve everyone in the discussion is to inform all members that after the staff report or public comment period you will call on each in order to respond or give their opinion. You can even make this a standard part of the agenda. Thus, they can be prepared and no one is singled out. 

Illustration of a shy woman

The shy one may just say, “I agree with my colleague who just spoke,” but at least, he has said something.

Another approach is to honor the reticent speaker when she finally says something useful with a rejoinder such as “Sue just made a good point we haven’t heard before. Does anyone have something to add?” Sue has just been shown she can be a contributing member to the dialog and may be encouraged to speak out again.

It may be necessary to have a private conversation with a persistently shy member to find out the reasons behind the reluctance to participate. If so, probe gently. The individual may have hidden strengths such as a fine analytical mind, and be more comfortable with the written word than verbal conversation. Perhaps he can be asked to report to the board on a specific piece of information that would be useful in upcoming discussion. Or, appeal to his professional strength: “As an architect, Phil, you can be really valuable to the commission when you give us your opinion about ...”

All this is not likely found in any job description of the duties of the planning board chair -- but they are important if you are to lead the entire commission in functioning efficiently and well, and in finding satisfaction in a job well done. Shy people may never become the life of the party or the leader of the commission but they can become productive members with some assistance from an alert and willing chair.

photo of Elaine CoganElaine Cogan, founding principal of the Portland, Oregon planning and communications firm of Cogan Owens Cogan, has consulted for more than 36 years with communities undertaking strategic planning and visioning processes. Cogan has been honored for her work on a variety of citizen involvement projects.