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The Effective Planning Commissioner

Dealing with Commissioners Who Have Too Much to Say

Last month, we discussed how to handle planning commissioners who have little to say. This time, we are writing about the reverse ... those who are overly assertive. By their very nature: loud, obstreperous, interruptive, sometimes rude, boisterous, or garrulous, these people are more likely to disrupt your meeting than the quiet ones we wrote of last month.

Obviously, the chair has the primary responsibility for keeping order and making sure the meeting flows in a positive way. However, it is important that other members not just sit by and let matters get out of hand. As we shall see, each commissioner can and should play a role.

Talkative ManThere are many reasons people are disruptive:

  • Some are so opinionated and accustomed to taking charge in most situations that they see no problem in continuing this behavior at commission meetings.
  • Others may be frustrated because they believe they are not recognized enough when they speak in normal tones or wait patiently to be called upon.
  • Still others are overly passionate about certain issues or do not know when to stop talking.
  • Another type, usually people who are physically imposing, have naturally loud voices.

Just as there is no one way to deal with shy folks, special handling is required for different types of assertive people.

Consider the clock your ally and use it wisely. As a general aide to orderly meetings, each agenda item should be accompanied by an estimated beginning and ending time. This gives the chair and everyone else a benign system to help keep on track. Of course, it is important to be flexible and willing to prolong a discussion when the points being brought up are still relevant, but in general, follow the schedule. This is simple courtesy to all the commissioners, staff, and the public who may be attending for a specific reason. Thus, the chair or another member can interrupt the talkative member firmly without seeming rude. “Thanks for your remarks, Charlie, but as you can see, we have only five minutes left for this item and there are several others who have not yet spoken.”

Resort to a timer sparingly. It can be valuable as a neutral device that applies equally to slow and to assertive talkers. It may, however, stifle meaningful conversation. Using it to limit the number of questions or comments per individual may be helpful.

Do you have a gavel? In these egalitarian times, many chairs eschew their use, but they still may be useful if more than one person is talking at once or the more assertive one is trying to take charge of the conversation. Ringing a bell firmly can be an even more effective alternative but show you mean it. The goal is to get people’s attention, especially the disruptive one. Eye contact is important, also. Look directly at the person talking too loudly or too long and say something like, “It’s time to move on,” summarize the conversation so far and turn your attention to the next item on the agenda or someone else. “Leslie, you've had your hand up for quite a while. Before we wind up this item on the agenda, let’s hear from you.” This is another situation where the other members should be alert by speaking up and helping direct attention away from the disrupter.

Talkative ManWatch body language for signals. If the overly assertive person seems to be intimidating the others unduly so they are nodding silently or even frowning, interrupt by calling on each of the commission members with a direct request. “We've already heard from Gayle. Now, I’m going to ask each of the rest of you to give your opinion on this issue, especially if you want to bring up something we may not have already covered.” Don’t be reticent to point out that the assertive one already has given her opinion.

If tempers are getting out of control, call a time out or recess. Adjourn to an adjoining room and talk it over. This has several advantages. It gives everyone a breather by bringing them together in a private space where other members may feel freer to express their opinions. They may even reveal exasperation with the assertive one so that you can agree at least tentatively to palliative measures. The recess should be no more than ten minutes but it may be enough time to deal with the current situation and an opening to agreeing to discussing the issues of assertive (and shy) members at a later time.

You may recall that one way we suggested engaging the shy or reticent member would be to talk to them quietly away from the commission meeting. Alas, subtlety is not likely to change the aggressive one’s behavior as you may receive a negative response or a denial. “Are you trying to muzzle me?” or “I’m not aware I’m being disruptive. If I have a strong opinion you’ll just have to get used to my style.”

You will get further by taking advantage of these individuals positive traits. Channel their enthusiasm or energy by giving them a specific assignment such as accompanying a staff member on a site visit and reporting to the commission or reviewing a special report. Thus, you can give them time on the agenda when they are legitimately in the limelight and possibly derail them from feeling they have to speak up forcefully on nearly every issue. You also give yourself an opening to interrupt if they continue.

Every part of the commission chair’s job is a challenge, but giving yourself as many tools as possible and enlisting the help of other members should yield the positive results you all deserve.


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.