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The way we discuss issues and iron out differences online is different than the way we do these things face to face. Or, at least, it used to be. Lately, the same anger, forcefulness, and aggression that’s always on display online have been showing up during public, in-person meetings. This added tension is leading many to believe that the days of public meetings may be coming to a close.

While that could seem like a natural evolution, it’s not something we should look forward to.

What We Gain Face-to-Face

When we meet face-to-face and discuss our concerns with people who agree with us and those who don’t, we tend to listen and be more open to opposing viewpoints. Online, we’re so busy trying to make our point we can forget that the other person we’re talking to is a human with feelings. In person, when you can see each other’s face and expression, it’s a reminder that we are all just trying to find the best way to negotiate life and a changing society.

It’s also good to remember that not every member of our community is online. For some, especially seniors, public discourse is the only option for them to be a part of the discussion. And as voting, spending members of our society, those who aren’t online are entitled to at least that.

Avoiding The Loss of In-Person Community Engagement

What can we do to avoid losing face-to-face community meetings? We can start by implementing rules that ensure everyone gets a chance to speak and listen. Often, groups try to hijack these meetings because they don’t feel like they’re getting adequate opportunities to be heard. By giving everyone equal speaking time without interruption, you can reduce their feelings of being ignored.

Another way to help maintain peace and civility in these meetings is to have them on short notice but plan outreach to a broad range of residents. You want to make sure all residents feel like they are being represented, which is why you need to publicize your meeting in a variety of different ways. But by providing shorter notice, you reduce the likelihood that a group will be able to organize and interrupt the meeting to push their agenda.

It’s up to all of us to make our communities work. We have to find ways to get past our differences and listen to opposing viewpoints if we want to create communities that we all feel safe and comfortable in.