Dealing With an Angry Public

Debra Stein


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.

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. Use active listening techniques to show that you really care what the speaker is saying. Refer to speakers in a courteous manner ("...as we heard from neighbors like Dr. Garcia and Mrs. Lee ..."). Covering your lips is often a signal of contempt or rejection, so keep your hands away from your face when listening.

Keeping Nasty Behavior Under Control
Just because a citizen feels angry doesn’t mean he or she necessarily needs to behave in an angry manner. There are several practical steps you can take to avoid hostile conduct even when emotions are running high. You can start by explaining at the beginning of the meeting (or before a controversial item comes up) that the commission always values civility and does not welcome rude or hostile remarks. People are also more likely to behave badly when they think they’re just anonymous members of a faceless crowd. You can minimize aggressive behavior by making it easier to identify individuals and hold them responsible for their own anti-social actions. Use name tags in a group setting. Have speakers introduce themselves before testifying. Call on citizens by name and avoid referring to the audience as an anonymous entity ("You guys are all ...").

Keeping Cool When Things Get Hot
Even your best efforts to avoid unpleasant emotions and head off nasty conduct may not be enough. When tempers start to fray, you may need step in to cool things down.

First of all, remind citizens that abusive testimony is not allowed and reiterate your intention to enforce those rules. Bring the power of peer pressure into play by reminding speakers that angry tirades make many of their fellow citizens feel uncomfortable and interfere with the audience’s efforts to understand what’s happening. Be firm, but don’t be a bully.

Rather than trying to quash an outburst, it may be helpful to allow an angry citizen to let off some steam. A confrontational attack can be shifted to a more cooperative dialogue simply by asking an angry person to give details about why he or she is so upset. This can calm the person down, and may yield information that will be of value to the planning board members.

You can often respond to an angry tirade simply by acknowledging part of it. For example, you can accept one element of the attack while denying another ("I agree that placing homeless shelters in residential neighborhoods can pose serious problems, but I think we can address those problems"). Or you might agree to the possibility the speaker may be right ("You could be right about that, but we need to hear from others at tonight’s meeting").

Under some circumstances you may wish to attach the use of attacks. First, show you understand the substantive content of what the citizen is trying to get across: "I understand that you don’t want this factory next to the school ..." Next, comment on the unacceptable manner in which the issue was presented "... but it’s not appropriate to shout at the Zoning Board or call board members names." You can then insist the citizen behave in a more cooperative manner by noting that neither you nor any other party is going to engage in such unpleasant behavior. A word of caution, however: don’t expect to placate an angry citizen by engaging in a counterattack. While attacking the use of attacks can neutralize the impact of an angry individual on the rest of the audience and encourage others to refrain from aggressive behavior, the target of your rebuke may feel shamed and become even angrier.

Summing Up:
Dealing with anger means more than just reacting when people start protesting; it means planning ahead to anticipate and avoid problems. Ask yourself: what is it about this project or situation that might trigger negative emotions like frustration or loss of face? Know the facts and explain the rules so citizens don’t start feeling like they’re being treated unfairly.

Just because citizens feel angry doesn’t mean they have to behave in an aggressive manner. Think about what you’re going to do once people start losing their cool: you can firmly enforce the rules, allow angry people to vent, ask for more, agree in part, or even attack the use of attacks. With a strategic approach and some advance planning, you can help provide for civil discussion and debate on contentious matters.