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The Effective Planning Commissioner

Dealing With Difficult People Requires Finesse

Planning issues seem to bring out the best and the worst in citizens. It should not be too surprising. The decisions of local planning commissioners and staff affect the everyday lives of many people. They concern the quality of their neighborhoods and their communities or the value of their homes and businesses.

You may not be loved, but you should strive always to be respected.

At times in your career as a planning commissioner you will preside over or participate in a public meeting where people are polarized, opinionated, and possibly rude and abusive.

You may have to make tough decisions that may displease a certain faction in your community. You may not be loved, but you should strive always to be respected. People may disagree with what you say or decide, but they should always respect you for having made your decision in an open, straightforward way that considered all sides.

General descriptions of some who may cause difficulties and suggestions about how to deal with them follow.

Accusers. They may jump out of their seats and shout in frustration: “I’ve been listening to you for twenty minutes now, and it’s the same old stuff we always hear. I’ll bet not one of you has been down to our neighborhood to see how bad the traffic really is.”

The problem with such an accusation is that it may be true. Staff and commissioners may have been talking theoretically about a problem that is very real to the people who live there. If the Accusers are right, invite them to tell their side of the story and listen attentively. Better yet, make a date to go out to their neighborhood. You may learn something.

If they are accusing you unjustly, set them straight, but still give them time to tell their side of the issue. Never rise to the bait with an angry retort. “That’s not fair; our staff spent hours in you neighborhood …” will neither mollify Accusers nor advance the discussion.

an angry emoticon

Attackers. They may be psychologically or even physically abusive. The latter can get hauled away by the police; the former are more difficult to handle. It helps to deal with Attackers if you realize they are probably making you or the agency the scapegoat for a more generalized anger. They may be upset with the “system,” angry at the faceless “bureaucrats” who will not answer their phone messages, or even mad that their lazy no-good brother-in-law is on the public payroll.

The best way to deal with Attackers is to slow down the momentum by speaking deliberately and with assurance. Emphasize a point you know the rest of the group supports and then go on with the agenda.

graphic of a gossiperGossip-spreaders. Every community has them. “Well, I didn’t hear it firsthand, but I understand the planning commission is rezoning all of downtown for high rises.” They speak in authoritative voices and will not be deterred by correct information.

Write off the Gossip-spreaders as you probably never will convince them of the truth. Concentrate on getting and keeping the rest of the audience on you side. A simple, “Why, where did you get that information?” will put Gossip-spreaders on the defensive and give you the opportunity to provide the correct facts. That is a far better rejoinder than, “That’s absurd. We’d never do such a thing.”

Hair-splitters. Accountants, attorneys, scientists, and computer specialists are trained to be precise in their jobs, and usually bring those traits with them when they act as citizens. Most times they just want attention and will be mollified by an offer to “look into it.” Sometimes, however, their points are important and perhaps even a clue that you have neglected something. Refer the Hair-splitters to a staff attorney or someone else similarly trained and they should be able to work out the problem.

Old-timers. “Why, I remember way back when …” or, “We’ve never done it this way before. I don’t see why we have to start now.” They can be boring and fascinating at the same time. Treat them as the keepers of the community memory by appointing them to a historical committee where their recollections can be put to good use.

cartoon image of yakkersYakkers. They pontificate too much, too loudly, and too long. They are opinionated and overbearing and have something to say about everything.

A strictly enforced time limit on individual comments is one way to treat everyone fairly and put the Yakkers in their place. Do not hesitate to interrupt them. They have tough skins and are used to it. Wait until they take a breath — they always have to — and firmly remind them of the time constraints or that many other citizens also want to speak.

The very essence of democracy, as untidy as it may seem at times, is to give equal time to many people of disparate points of view.

When these or other types of people appear at your public meetings, do not panic or despair. The very essence of democracy, as untidy as it may seem at times, is to give equal time to many people of disparate points of view.

  • Regard all parties with respect, especially when you are in disagreement.
  • Deal with each situation with goodwill, fairness, and a sense of humor.
  • Always adhere to democratic principles. Set the rules fairly and make sure everyone — staff, commissioners, and the public — follows them.
  • Use time as your ally. Announce and enforce strict beginnings and endings for all discussion.
  • Call a recess if warring factions are out of control.
  • Realize that the tone of the meeting can be influenced by your own behavior.
  • Take credit when it is due.

If you follow the above advice, your willingness to be a volunteer planning commissioner when you could do something less stressful with your time will gain the eternal gratitude of the majority of citizens.

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.