Working with Angry Viewpoints

Anger and complaints from local citizens may be a challenge to address, but learning the source of the issue and providing information can be helpful. When staff listens and responds calmly and informatively, many times anger can be diffused. Oftentimes, the citizen simply wants to air their opinion and wants acknowledgment that they have been heard. Surely they would like things to go their way, but at the most basic level they want to offer their viewpoint or encourage an alternative. Of course, if the anger escalates to violence or more than registering a complaint, staff should contact law enforcement, follow emergency procedures and use their best common sense given the circumstances.

Recalling that citizens are “customers” of governance, city staff tries to provide excellent customer service to citizens every day. At times, often due to the complexity inherent in local decision-making, some of these citizens, as customers, will be unhappy with local decisions. The city of Portland, OR’s Outreach and Involvement Handbook reminds us that even the angriest complainer has chosen to be involved. They have chosen to engage the city about an issue, expressing their passion or concern. If the citizen is ill-informed on the issue, perhaps this is a time to listen, and then clarify the city’s position and provide factual information. It is their expectation that government will respond in a professional manner, even if the resolution does not incorporate their preference.

There are many avenues through which conflict may appear in local issues. Angry citizens may appear in person, they may be vocal at local meetings, and nowadays social media outlets have become another source of citizen opinion. Understanding roles, responsibilities and expectations may be the start of handling issues in a professional manner. Creating opportunities to gather information and feedback early in the process is key to opening doors of communication before issues escalate. Fostering an environment where issues and alternative views can be heard and considered, and solutions are well-explained, will help expand on the city’s vision. Taking the opportunity to talk about your city’s story so citizens and other stakeholders understand both progress and setbacks or potential controversy is important. Talking about and acknowledging difficult decisions and how they were made can help. Ultimately, keeping many communication channels open from the beginning, and throughout local projects is critical.

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