This Meeting Should’ve Been An Interview

This Meeting Shoud've Been An Interview

Public meetings are an efficient way to collect public input and feedback. They also put the public at a disadvantage by creating three substantial problems:

  1. Thoughts and feelings are often complicated, nuanced, and in various stages of formation. Precisely articulating them, especially on the fly, is difficult. Accurately summarizing them is even harder.
  2. We have different thresholds for what we perceive as threatening (to our beliefs, routines, finances, and safety), and how we respond to those perceptions. And on top of it all, we’re all bringing various baggage, sometimes related and sometimes unrelated, to the conversations we’re having.
  3. When others are speaking, we’re often not actively listening, especially as we age. We start thinking about something else, or thinking about how we’ll respond when the other person finishes speaking.

Superficially articulated views, selective listening, and conversations that can be easily influenced by what kind of moods people are in when they arrive. Sounds like a recipe for a bad data souffle: light on substance and overly salty.

Solving these problems typically involves rule-making. “Remember, there are no bad ideas, we want to hear your honest perspectives,” we say to everyone in the room. “It’s okay to disagree with something that’s said. We want to hear why, but please keep things respectful.” What we believe we’re doing by setting these expectations is conjuring a safe space of considered, well-meaning dialogue. It’s almost like we believe an enchantment has been cast. Everyone in the room is now relieved of any anxiety and has been granted precise clarity. Also, apparently magic is real now.

For many of us, really working through our thoughts and feelings about an issue, and remaining focused enough to do so, is NOT something we feel comfortable doing in a room of strangers, neighbors we know to varying degrees, and some public servants/bureaucrats. 

The more meaningful and insightful tactical approach is to conduct a series of interviews. Interviews are exploratory and investigative. They allow the interviewee to unpack and clarify their thoughts, and provide the interviewer with the opportunity for deeper perspective. Instead of collecting a topline data point of what someone hopes to see happen, or what concerns them, we can better explore the root “whys” behind those perspectives. The conversational nature of interviews also helps balance out the time participants spend listening versus speaking. It’s possible to go to many public meetings and not utter a word. Not the case with an interview.

The thing with interviews is they’re highly inefficient compared to meetings. It can take three, four, even five times as long to engage, conduct, and process findings from 30 interviews as it does to hold one meeting of 30 people. But if the idea is to really incorporate the lived experience of those who will be impacted by, or interact with, a new project, policy, or idea, it’s a worthy pursuit to truly dig into the user experience and perspective.

Used in tandem with quantitative-focused efforts such as polling, surveys, and yes, maybe even larger meetings in later phases, interviews can more fully inform a project or policy design while also creating a basis for increased buy-in. If magic did exist, one quick spell we’d cast is for far fewer public meetings, and many more interviews to occur in their place.