The Effective Planning Commissioner

Dealing with Commissioners Who Have Too Little to Say

February 19th, 2013

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

Today we’re going to deal with an issue several planning board chairs asked about on the PlannersWeb LinkedIn page. 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.

End of excerpt

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.

Cogan’s 52-page booklet, Now that You’re on Board: How to Survive … and Thrive … as a Planning Commissioner is available to PlannersWeb members to download at no extra charge (sorry, but it is not currently available in print).

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